Greater Boston “welcomed” a higher percentage of immigrants from Ireland in the 19th century than any other major city in this country. Though initially treated villainously by Bostonians who preceded them, they grew in numbers until they had become a political force and have remained so. Irish culture continues to be the greatest single ethnic influence on the city. The vocal ensemble Skylark and its Artistic Director Matthew Guard acknowledged these facts by beginning to plan a program of Irish and Irish-inspired music in the fall of 2019—before the global pandemic disruptions. Two years later, the plan has fructified into “Emerald Isles,”and Sunday’s audience at First Parish Church of Weston enjoyed the result. The nine singers (three of them also instrumentalists) under Guard frequently blurred the boundary between Celtic folk songs, ballads, and airs and classical choral music at the very time the storied Saint Patrick’s Day Parade was marching in South Boston.
Like many other local events celebrating Hibernian heritage, the concert opened with bagpipes alone, played by bass-baritone and award-winning piper Peter Walker. Beginning behind closed doors, then emerging into the back of the sanctuary Walker led the ensemble in stately fashion down the aisle, playing the quintessentially Irish hymntunes “Slane” (Be Thou My Vision) and, following a skillful bridge, “St. Columba” (The King of Love My Shepherd Is).
Mo ghile mear (My dashing darling), sung in Irish, began dreamlike in an unaccompanied solo by tenor Nathan Hodgson, becoming reverent when the remaining singers intoned accompanying harmony, and ultimately, picking up animation and fervor propelled by the addition of the bodhrán, a Celtic drum played by soprano Fiona Gillespie. Desmond Earley made this affecting arrangement. In Seóirse Bodley’s version of “I will walk with my love” soprano Sophie Amelkin seemed to portray an Irish ingenue who loves her “bold Irish boy” so much that she doesn’t begrudge losing him to another girl—perhaps because in the last line she states she “will walk with my love now and then.” Yearning and bittersweet harmonies filled the“Flower of Maherally”, led by the restrained but expressive solo tenor of Erik Gustafson. Michael McGlynn made this beautiful, close-harmony arrangement.
Three singers displayed their instrumental talents impressively in Turlough O’Carolan’s folk tune Sí Beag, Sí Mór (Small Fairy Mound, Big Fairy Mound) which sounded as though it could have been composed last week but actually dates from 1691! Peter Walker played the Celtic harp throughout, Fiona Gillespie began on a whistle and finished on a traverse wooden flute, and Megan Roth played the central solo on violin. There followed two folksong arrangements for soprano and violin by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), who is largely remembered as a British-American viola virtuoso and composer of “serious” music (she was one of Charles Villiers Stanford’s first female students at the Royal College of Music). Here, though, Clarke convincingly adopted the language of folk music. “I know my love” interestingly contrasted a light musical tone with an unsettled text: every refrain ends with “And if my love leaves me, what will I do?” Sarah Moyer sang with smiling tone, and Megan Roth playfully alternated pizzicato and arco. “As I was goin’ to Ballynure,” a breathless, entertaining jig and a display piece for both performers, captivated the audience. Peter Walker’s arranged Siúil a Rún (Walk, My Love), one of two macaronic pieces we heard, combining lyrics in two different languages (three verses in English, three choruses in Irish). Mezzo soprano Clare McNamara and Peter Walker on Celtic harp gave a poignant reading to the tale of a woman’s willingness to sacrifice for her innamorato who has gone off to war and may be alive or dead.
A virtuosic arrangement by Michael McGlynn of Dúlamán (Seaweed) alternated men’s voices with women’s before combining them in the final refrains. The fanciful lyrics featured the possibly tongue-in-cheek personification of Gaelic seaweed. The full chorus’s fleet and flawless delivery reminded me, oddly enough, of the Bulgarian women’s folk music recordings that were internationally celebrated in the 1980s and ‘90s. Samuel Barber’s “The Coolin” (an endearment derived from the word for “curl of hair”) had the emotional directness of his famous Adagio but also a winsome charm, as it described the warm attachment of a couple who complete each other but don’t need to proclaim their adoration to the universe. Skylark sang affectionately and expressively, though we would have welcomed a little more attention to clarity of enunciation. “John Barleycorn” provided an amusing allegory about men who serve the title character “most barbarously”, vowing he must die. In fact, John Barleycorn is barley, graphically harvested, ground up, and made into whisky and malt liquor. Matthew Guard’s was a high-energy arrangement including a canon at “They’ve wheeled him around and around . . .” The singers rose to the occasion rousingly.
Though Sir Charles Villiers Stanford was perhaps the leading figure in English music by the turn of the 20th century, particularly through teaching a number of later famous composers at the Royal College of Music, he was in fact an Irishman who wrote a large number of works with Irish or Celtic themes. His most popular part-song, “The Blue Bird”, however, is universal in its depiction of the beauty of nature, setting a brief but evocative poem by Mary Coleridge. Illustrating the flight of the bird, Sarah Moyer’s pure soprano soared above the other singers’ ethereally beautiful harmonies to enchanting effect. Sadly, no arranger received credit for “Ned of the Hill,” a bewitching collaboration of soprano (Fiona Gillespie), harp (Peter Walker), and violin (Megan Roth) telling a tale of a couple overcoming long odds n order to reunite.
Sam Kreidenweis used his striking baritone to vibrant effect, backed up by the other male singers, in “Auld Triangle”, writer Dick Shannon’s depiction of Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison (whose “old triangle” is the metal object used to rouse the prisoners in the early morning). All the singers effectively turned tender at the reference to the narrator’s girl Sal, only to revert to gleefully lusty affect in the final stanza when he expresses his desire to dwell among the 75 inmates of the female prison. “Irish Tune from County Derry” is Percy Grainger’s lush harmonization of Londonderry Air, aka Danny Boy. As he transcribed it for wind ensemble, Skylark dispatched it without words, mixing different vowels with humming. At the outset I yearned for the deeply touching text, but the rich Romantic treatment of the tune by Grainger, combined with the full-throated commitment of the performers, soon swept me away.
This type of show is never complete without a traditional Irish pub song or two. In “Star of the County Down” the narrator declares how smitten he is with the young colleen Rosie McCann (the eponymous star) at some length, with guitar and whistle enhancing the fun and the text passing from one singer to another. “Whiskey in the Jar” told the amusing story of how the narrator’s carnal attraction to his playmate Jenny leaves him quite literally disarmed when she switches her loyalties. Peter Walker did double duty, singing the baritone solo with gusto while playing the banjo. The audience enthusiastically joined in, clapping and singing the later refrains.
The concert officially closed with a modern-day folksong from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Eithne Ni Bhraonain (aka Enya) wrote it and sang it on the soundtrack. It here served as a Celtic blessing, dreamy and beautiful, achieving an attractive balance between Sarah Moyer’s solo soprano line and the rich bass sound. The audience, however, would not be denied an encore: “Paddy on the Railway” turned out to be a distant Irish relative of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”. Erik Gustafson’s blustery delivery of the solo line was apt, though he did inject a comic twinkle at “In eighteen-hundred and forty-seven, sweet Biddy Magee she went to heaven. If she left one kid, she left eleven.” The other singers gave vigorous support on the refrains.
Once again Skylark and Matthew Guard brilliantly planned and executed a winning mixture of moods and different (if related) genres, though the double duty of the instrumentalists made for an apparent departure. Here’s hoping this becomes an annual tradition for the Irish “high holy days” of March.