O'Carolan is really two people. There's O'Carolan the
Baroque composer and harper, and then there's O'Carolan the Irish composer,
whose music is more widely played today than ever before. While pub sessions
and Celtic concerts are full of the latter O'Carolan, the former is heard
only once in a great while. The March 21st, 1997, concert by The Harp Consort at
Spivey Hall was one of these rare occasions.
From the perspective of an Irish music fan who is also a Baroque musician
and dancer, I thought the evening was a revelation. In the quieter
pieces, particularly the harp solos, I felt transported back to the
cold, damp, poorly-lit houses of 18th century Ireland, where being
rich didn't guarantee being comfortable--but it could sure buy
you some terrific music.
A wistful, gentle, self-mocking moodiness that I think of as particularly
Irish, combined with some very rich modalities and occasional (gracefully)
bent notes, kept the music from sounding like that of just any other
composer of the period. At the same time, The Harp Consort was true to the
character of the era, and did not try to sound like Patrick Street or
Planxty (just two of the many Irish bands that have recorded O'Carolan in
his "folk" incarnation).
In addition to the restrained elegance of such tunes as Carolan's
Dream and the exquisite song Bridget Cruise, The Harp
Consort gave us the humorous British chauvinism of The Arethusa,
and the wildly funny Bumper Squire Jones. Steve Player,
who performed as a dancer, actor, singer, and musician, absolutely
stole the show with his clowning and drunken gymnastics.
Catr¡ona O'Leary sang with a pure, unaffected strength that was entrancing.
She was comfortable both with the music and with the Irish language,
which is NOT an easy language to sing in. She also made a handy foil
for Mr. Player's silly ardour. Her performance of Carolan's Lament
for Chas. McCabe was powerfully solemn, majestic, and heart-felt.
Percussionist Pedro Estevan was probably the least Irish and the least
Baroque of the ensemble, but his drumming was so imaginative, so secure,
and so brilliant that its Spanish and North African antecedents achieved
perfect cordiality with O'Carolan's Celtic tunes.
The only disappointing elements were some rather fusty and emotionless harp
playing by Andrew Lawrence-King (only now and then--most of his playing
was lovely), and a really unhappy misinterpretation of the tune Loftus
Jones. This piece should have the characteristically Irish feel of a
melody spinning out in flowing phrases that almost tumble one into the next
without breath or pause. Because of an arrangement that had changes of
instrumentation both at the change of a phrase and within phrases,
the piece was sadly choppy and stuttering. (If you want to hear a great
modern version of it, check out Patrick Street, the first recording
by the band of the same name.)
Thanks to great depth of talent, a willingness to take risks, and the
courage to be silly, The Harp Consort put together a delightful program that
managed to be Irish, Baroque, O'Carolan, and fun, all in one.