Sunday, September 02, 2007

Instrumentalists at the 2007 Catskills Irish Arts Week

Since I am primarily a flute player, it wouldn't be right to finish my reflections on the 2007 CIAW without commenting on the instrumental music I heard. A few performances and players stand out in my mind:  Martin Hayes, Mattie Connolly, Angelina Carberry, Joanie Madden and Mary Bergin's tin whistle duet, and Mike Rafferty along with various other flute players.

Hearing fiddler Martin Hayes was quite an experience. As a solo player he often starts his set with a poignant slooowww aire and progresses through a series of tunes for about 20 minutes to close with a brilliant rapid-fire reel. He is the master of accelerando, piecing tunes together, each with a slightly faster tempo, until the last tune has the audience in a frenzy. That's what folks expect and that's what he delivered. It was an incredible experience. What surprised me, though, was that when the situation called for it he could cast aside the soloist mentality and become a solid ensemble player, contributing to the group without overshadowing anyone. I respected his musicianship for knowing when to dazzle and when to blend.

Mattie Connolly gave us an unforgettable rendition of The Green Fields of Canada. On the main stage in the pavillion he was accompanied by fellow piper Cillian Vallely. Mattie started the familiar slow aire as a solo on the pipes. On the second repetition of the tune he began to sing, accompanying himself with only the drones. On the chorus, Cillian added droning tones at contrasting harmonic intervals. The wailing pipes and Mattie's plaintive, direct vocal style combined with the song's heartbreaking text produced a compelling and chilling effect. People talked about it for days.

I actually heard Mattie's Green Fields of Canada twice. The night before he performed it in the pavillion with Cillian, he did a solo version for Mike Rafferty and a few of us who were hanging out with Mike after Mike and Mattie finished their late-night session at Gavin's pub. The intimate nature of the performance complemented the personal nature of the song, making this private performance even more moving than the duet version which came the next night. (I took this picture, with Mattie's permission, as he was tuning up to sing for us. We were seated around a table in front of him.)

By the way, the pipes Mattie is playing in this picture were once owned by Jimmy Cagney! I learned this from a friend and later verified it in an interview with Mattie on The pipes Mattie plays are "an old Alf Kennedy set pitched in D. He uses his Leo Rowsome chanter with the set, although he maintains the original chanter in playing condition too."

It was fun to hear Angelina Carberry. I'm no expert on the tenor banjo, but I will say that her rhythm is flawless and she is a joy to watch. Check out the picture of her - taken in the Catskills - in the blog entry Tunes and Beer on the Archive for Popular Music's blog. As a matter of fact, read the entire post! Archive's blogger is a friend. We both attended all of the performances he wrote about as well as the session with Mike Rafferty which he describes. Re-reading his post brought back some lovely memories!

Mary Bergin and Joanie Madden played an unrehearsed set of whistle tunes. Fingers flew and whistles chirped as the two joked good-naturedly throughout.

Last but not least was the flute performance on Saturday, the last day of the festival. The picture below shows the lineup. (Double-click on it to enlarge it.) I am totally partial to Mike Rafferty and the East Galway style he represents. I am less familiar with Frank Claudy and Mike McHale, but they are well respected and regular teachers at the CIAW. Catherine McElvoy is the "Martin Hayes" of the flute world. For slow aires, Laura Byrne can't be beat. June McCormack, always inspiring, has published a great flute tutor book which comes with a CD. (I bought it an plan to work through it over the next year.) Here in the NYC area I have frequent opportunities to hear Margie Mulvihill, whose strong sound I admire, and Linda Hickman, one of the most genuinely approachable people you'll ever meet, whose playing and singing is infused with the sincerity of her personality. This flute extravaganza was a tour de force of flute playing. Each enjoyed hearing the others and there was a real sense of camaraderie among them. It was hard to tell who was having the most fun, the players or the audience!

Left to right: Mike McHale, Margie Mulvihill, Mike Rafferty, June McCormack, Catherine McElvoy, Laura Byrne, Linda Hickman, Frank Claudy.

For the past four years my time in the Catskills has been the high point of my experience in the world of Irish music. The well rounded program and the exposure to artists from all over the world really can't be beat in this country. Some perhaps year I'll go to Willie Week or University of Limerick's Blas, but meantime I don't feel I'm missing anything, with talent like this in my own back yard!

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
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