The 48th season of Southern Manitoba Concerts got underway on Tuesday, Oct. 22 with a warm, reflective presentation of the traditional music of Ireland, and a dash of contemporary influence to spice it up. ‘The Young Irelanders’, sponsored by the Irish Cultural Academy, represent some of the finest proponents of Irish traditional music, song, and dance. The members of the group are all world or Irish national champions in their disciplines. The music selected for the concert emphasized the Wild Atlantic Way, the coastal route which wends its way through the Western counties of Ireland. Selections from West Cork, Kerry, Galway and Donegal suggested some of the striking differences in style found among these communities.
The harper, Kate Hanegan, who acted as host for the evening, responded to a question regarding the deft unison of their performances by noting that, while many of the pieces are well-known traditional tunes, each of the performers had music to learn when they were chosen to work together on this project.
This unison styling was evident in the first tune, ‘Thunderheads’, led by Cormac Crummey on guitar and, with his feet, an electronic drum. Then Finnian O’Connor joined with the uillean pipes in unison with the guitar to suggest the threat of a storm.
Clodagh Lawlor sang ‘Song for Ireland’, evoking scenes from the Irish coast, with Henegan providing a violin countermelody and O’Connor, on a low-pitched penny whistle, a poignant, haunting alto. This style, with one instrument following another, or in unison, became a motif for the evening.
The first dance set, performed to ‘Crooked Road’ and ‘Foxhunter’, allowed dancers Natasha Waytiuk and Lucas Lawton to show their precision, with feet a blur. Both dancers are Canadians from Montreal, whose Irish roots led them back to Ireland to study traditional dance.
The harp held court in centre stage. Henegan noted that it had “come home” since it had been built in Winnipeg by noted harp maker Larry Fisher. Henegan’s family so respects Fisher’s work that they own three of his harps. In ‘Inisheer’, the harp and alto penny whistle created a lush atmosphere, evoking a walk through the glens.
Lawlor’s vocals in ‘Inis Free’ spoke of a yearning for home, and pianist Eamon Travers in ‘Gortnamona’ partnered with dancer Natasha Waytiuk to create a gentle lilting scene. Lucas Lawton’s step patterns to ‘Sailor on the Rock’ were much sprightlier.
With the dancers’ brush dance – a somewhat less dangerous version of the Scot’s sword dance – the dancer’s legs and the broom handles were interwoven in patterns the audience could only guess at.
In ‘Home to Donegal’, Lawlor led the audience by call and response in learning the chorus of this celebration of her homeland. The first half of the concert finished with some lively reels, ‘Rockin’ the Boat’ and ‘Along the Wild Atlantic Way’, echoing the theme of the concert. In each piece, the instruments threaded together the melody, joined in unison, then sped off with dance sets which were a wonder to behold.
The second half of the concert began with the lively ‘House of Hamid’, followed by a plaintive fiddle in ‘Neidin’, a County Kerry tune which echoed the vocalist’s ‘cross the silver sea, won’t you remember me’. The Kerry set concluded with a polka tune entitled ‘Trip to Dingle’.
In ‘Lord Mayo’, the extended phrases of the harp and piano created a sense of expectation which held the audience’s attention. This piece contrasted with the French gavotte which followed; its open fifths between guitar and pipes gave it a medieval sound which might remind the listener of such instruments as the hurdy-gurdy. With the band’s signature contrast in styles, vocalist Lawlor followed this with Arthur Colahan’s ‘Galway Bay’, made famous by Bing Crosby, and recognized by many in the audience. Steven O’Leary finally took to the limelight with button accordion fingerwork which belied the title of the piece – ‘Time on my Hands’; he had the audience cheering.
The dancers then brought two young folk on the stage to learn steps of the brush dance. With rubber boots, and with trying to figure out which foot was the ‘right one’, the youngsters did a great double hop, stepping to the music.
The show drew to a close with delicate guitar picking in ‘Golden Eagle’, the slow lilting pipe melody of ‘Milton’s Shuffle’, and waltz-time fiddle in ‘Somewhere along the Road’ where the vocalist noted that ‘someone waits for me’. The finale drew the group back together with lightning fast phrases and dancing, then the encore, ‘Danny Boy’, had the audience again singing along to a familiar tune.
With the lights down on another great performance, the audience was greeted by the performers as they filed to the door. The performers were ready to greet people and to thank them for attending. What a gracious, friendly group of people; truly ambassadors for their Ireland!