St. Mary Cathedral, Dec. 20
The spirit behind Austin's annual Celtic Christmas at the Cathedral is perhaps best captured in words by event producer Donnelle McKaskle: "I am grateful for the pipes, whistles, guitars, accordions, and bouzoukis that strum, thud, tap, and drone out the history of my ancestors. ... I am grateful for the unrepentant Fenian, tireless volunteers, joiners, redheads, blue Santas, and wild Irishmen. ... Winter has come to Waterloo."
McKaskle and musical director Jeffrey Jones-Ragona ushered in their eclectic celebration of Celtic traditions with the bells of St. Mary Cathedral to settle the packed crowd into a procession of nostalgic tunes by the Silver Thistle Pipes and Drums. After the last notes of "Amazing Grace" hung in the crisp air, Chris Buckley took to the sanctuary for the haunting "Da Day Dawes," an ancient pagan fiddle tune played to commemorate the winter solstice. This meld of genres acknowledges a vast variety of Christmas traditions in Celtic history. Depending on the era, region, or its politics, the holiday was greeted as either a solemn ecumenical affair or a reason for revelry and dance. The talents drawn together from the Austin community presented this spectrum in full.
The unofficial emcees were vocalist/button-accordion player Gregory Grene and vocalist/guitarist John Doyle, in from Ireland to join local artist Ed Miller and others in the folk tradition. Highlights included the furious, rollicking "The Open Reel," Grene's original song that will appear in the upcoming film Pride and Glory, which brought the crowd to rhythmic applause, and Doyle's "Arthur McBride," which captured the sardonic melancholy of the oft-performed ballad, his crystal-clear baritone floating through the hushed nave. A special shout-out is due the Fulmore Middle School Chamber Choir, which brought an innocent calm to the Manx lullaby "Arrane Ny Clean."
Led by Jones-Ragona, the 40 or so voices of the Schola Cantorum wove together eclectic offerings from the Celtic choral canon. From the charming verses of "The Deer's Cry," written by St. Patrick himself, to "The Rose of Allandale," the group's gorgeous sound and generally strong balance conveyed a lush, sentimental gentility. Not that they couldn't rock, however, as Jones-Ragona showed with the Cantorum's women in "Ibhi Abhi O!" Written when the British had banned Scottish and Irish national instruments, and musicians responded with "mouth music," using nonsense to imitate the prohibited instruments, this was a fun, technical piece handled with assurance by the singers. Aided by the strong, earthy vocals of Stephanie Prewitt, the women took the spotlight again for "The Gartan Mother's Lullaby," melting the crowd.
It would be a terrible lapse in judgment not to mention the night's wunderkind performer, Irish dancer David Bologna. A two-time North American champion and currently ranked fifth in the world, Bologna had his name splashed across the program and concert ads. The audience clearly couldn't wait to see him, as many folks rose to their feet and crowded the aisles for a clear view. Bologna's two performances, placed at the center of each act, were magical, energetic, and ebullient. In the second, the "hard shoe" dance, the teenager was a one-man percussion section, eliciting oohs and ahs from the crowd.
The dances also offered a chance to loosen the formality of the program. At almost three hours, Celtic Christmas is ambitious for any audience. The producer and musical director deserve accolades for their orchestration of this pageant of talents, which should be a top recommendation for the Austin holiday season.
The night ended with the Schola Cantorum's performance of "The Parting Glass," a piece traditionally sung with a gathering of friends at the end of a festive night. I found it odd that, with most of the musicians gathered at the heart of the sanctuary, the Cantorum alone sang – which it did very well but not without a further wish that all the performers would have seized the opportunity to close the night arm in arm. This picky detail notwithstanding, certain audience members, yours truly included, joined the chorus in the final verses:
"But since it has so ordered been by a time to rise and a time to fall/Come fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all."
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