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Red Knot

by Peggy Lamberson

The Harp Consort: Irish, Baroque, O'Carolan, and Fun
This review originally appeared in the newsletter of the Atlanta Early Music Alliance and is reprinted with permission. For information about the Alliance contact John Mortison at (770) 552-1829.
Turlogh 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.

David Marcus  
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