Two of Ireland's most popular musicians, fiddler Eileen Ivers and vocalist Mary Black, joined the National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marvin Hamlisch for "A Celtic Evening" in this past weekend's pops programs at the Kennedy Center. The Friday concert, in what Hamlisch called "our big salute to Hanukah," had a few items with a Welsh or Scottish flavor, including some stirring sounds from a highland piper. But the accent was primarily Irish.
Besides accompanying the soloists, the versatile NSO played the kind of orchestral pops items usually heard around St. Patrick's Day, such as Leroy Anderson's lilting "Irish Suite," a movement from Hamilton Harty's "Irish" Symphony and Percy Grainger's arrangement of "The Londonderry Air." But the music that had the capacity audience leaping to its feet and clapping in unison was Black's crystal-clear, deeply emotive singing and -- even more -- Ivers's incredible fiddling.
Ireland's musical traditions are ancient and their influence has been widespread. Both soloists reached back into that tradition for part of their material, but both would endorse a statement once made by Black: "In Ireland there's an openness about music that allows you to step outside of categories."
Black began her career as a folk singer, and her brief appearance with the NSO included a memento of those origins -- an old ballad about a wife waiting for her husband to return from the sea. But she also sang contemporary material. Her show-stopper was one of her signature tunes, "Columbus."
Ivers plays two violins, a standard acoustic one and another that is electrified. She may be the world's fastest fiddler, and she used this skill effectively, but she also is a versatile musician, at home in a variety of idioms and alert to the links between the popular music of Ireland and America. Her band included guitar, bass, percussion, uilleann pipes, flute and vocalist Tommy McDonnell, who also plays harmonica and cajoles the audience into singalong mode. This ensemble is adept in a variety of styles, and their music included not only traditional jigs and music from the baroque era but Latin-flavored numbers and the quintessentially American "Lost Train Blues," with train imitations by the fiddler, percussion and harmonica.
Still, Irish music is Ivers's specialty and she performs it with panache, solo or in ensemble, in the spotlight or in accompaniment. She brought on a small troupe of Irish step dancers, accompanied them stylishly and later danced a few steps herself while still fiddling. In the grand finale, she went out into the audience and walked up and down the aisles, greeting patrons while spinning out notes at a mile a minute.
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