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MUSINGS OF A MEANDERING MIND #7 (article first published : 2006-07-13)

All my life I’ve greatly enjoyed the pleasure of immersing myself in water, and the joy of stopping to smell the roses on the journey through life, no matter the location of the garden or the time of day. So imagine my untold pleasure to discover a SECRET garden – this time a MUSICAL one. I have a huge appreciation for good music – in particular what I like to refer to as classy contemporary classics – but it was an unexpected delight recently to come upon a truly fantastic group of musicians who call themselves Secret Garden.

This group is the brainchild of Rolf Lovland, a Norwegian composer who teamed up with an Irish violinist by the name of Fionnuala Sherry to create an exquisite semi-classical musical mixture with beautiful melodies (often with an Irish influence), lush orchestration and a soaring sweet-toned violin at the forefront. They won the Eurovision Song Contest in Norway in 1995 with Nocturne, an entry that was more an instrumental piece than a song. In the 40-year history of this prestigious pan-European television extravaganza an instrumental piece had never previously won. It was one so stylistically removed from the European pop music format commonly associated with the song contest that the press stated: Secret Garden has redefined the Eurovision Song Contest This number appears, together with one of their most memorable melodies, Serenade to Spring, on their first CD, Songs from a Secret Garden. This album was made available around the globe, an historic event for a Norwegian artist and record company who for the first time had produced a world-wide release with sales of more than a million. Though the record was never technically classified as an international release, Secret Garden’s success developed through a fantastic enthusiasm and commitment among PolyGram and Philips Classics staff (later Universal records also) on a local level. Nobody was commanded to work with this project. They were driven by a passion for the music, and have seen it as a challenge to market Secret Garden within their own territories.

I first heard the glorious piece, You Raise Me Up sung by Josh Groban, and more recently by boy-band Westlife, both wonderful performances indeed. But to me the DEFINITIVE version is that by Secret Garden, having that little edge that makes it stand head and shoulders above other artists’ efforts, incorporating as it does the powerfully stirring London Community Gospel Choir and the Irish Choral Group, Anuna.

The family of football legend George Best requested You Raise Me Up (composed by Rolf Lovland, with lyrics by Brendan Graham) to be performed at the funeral for him that took place in Belfast. Brian Kennedy, who FIRST recorded the song, with Secret Garden, and who is a fellow native of Belfast, sang it at the ceremony. The performance at the funeral was recorded and released on CD, and consequently reached the #4 position in the UK charts. The next week Secret Garden appeared with Westlife, performing the same number at the special Nobel Peace Prize Concert from Oslo. Rolf Lovland received an ASCAP (American Copyright organisation) award recognising the success of You Raise Me Up, which he co-wrote with Brendan Graham. To date there are over 125 different recordings of this number. It was also nominated as Song of the Year at the 36th Annual GMA Music Awards in 2005 at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tennessee. (Josh Groban was nominated for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance of Rolf Lovland’s melody and Brendan Graham’s words for this same song.)

Heartstrings from their first CD, Songs from a Secret Garden, was recorded by Barbra Streisand (with added lyrics by Ann Hampton Callaway), her version being called I Dream of You, and was featured at her wedding. A completely new version was later born with new Italian lyrics, recorded by Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins.

A song Rolf and Fionnuala wrote together for Secret Garden’s album, Dawn of a New Century, was recorded by Hayley Westenra for her album Odyssey. (And, by the way, this is yet another album that’s become a firm favourite of mine, and I think this young New Zealand lass has a magnificent talent, comparable perhaps to Charlotte Church in her younger – and more cherubic - years.) This particular number is titled Prayer.

There are to date around five albums available by this wonderfully talented group, some of them featuring vocal tracks by magnificent singers, interspersed with truly beautiful instrumental pieces, some of which might indeed make a good accompaniment to certain types of meditation.

So there’s no need to so much as lift a finger or stir a toe in order to take a walk in your very own Secret Garden – just purchase one (or more) of their albums and wander through a magnificently beautiful and tranquil place of your own imagination.

Fionnuala is a stunningly talented violinist, and she and Rolf Lovland have worked with musicians of the calibre of the Irish National Symphony Orchestra, the RTE Concert Orchestra, the Irish Film Orchestra, the Irish Choral Group Anuna, The London Community Gospel Choir, the Chamber Choir of Ireland, cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber, singers such as British tenor Russell Watson, Irish vocalist Brian Kennedy, and the Scottish singer, Karen Matheson, of whom actor Sean Connery once commented, I’d say her voice is touched by God.

The three albums I currently have in my own collection are Songs from a Secret Garden, Once in a Red Moon (which includes You Raise Me Up) and Earthsongs (which includes British tenor Russell Watson’s beautiful You’re Always There, which never fails to bring a tear to my eye).

I cannot recommend this kind of Secret Garden highly enough. Instead of taking a walk on the wild side, as the saying goes, I suggest you take a walk on the MILD side. I can promise, you’ll never forget it! - Bev Pulé




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