Reviews ...

A joyful Celtic celebration

... Polymnia at its best

by Jackie Wattenberg

It was Polymnia Choral Society's biggest, happiest, most colorful program, "A Celtic Celebration," held last Sunday afternoon in almost totally-filled Memorial Hall. Perhaps in noting the absence this year of celebrated Irish troubadour Tommy Makem, who is ill, conductor Michelle Graveline brought forth a County-Cork-full of Irish songs, dancers and instrumentalists.

The chorus, which was in fine fettle, shared the wearing o' the green with sparkling costumed, fast-clicking little step dancers from the Goulding School of Irish Dance; a charming singer with Irish harp, Alice Duffy; Irish baritone Brendan Carroll, who is a true-green Irish singer of moving Irish songs; and Erna Hooten-Koester, well-known Melrose soprano.

Carroll was on stage all during the program, and his easy personality, unaffected manner of singing and beautiful baritone voice were high spots with the audience. Billed as an Irish tenor, his tones are vibrantly resonant, with a rich darkness and warmth plus a commanding strength that identifies him as a baritone. His opening "Kerry Dance" was jaunty and bright, but using the mike, not needed for him, caused his high fortissimos to blast. Toward the program's end, he brought us Tommy Makem's sad song, "Four Green Fields," so poignant it brought tears to our eyes.

A charming opener for the program by an Irish harpist-singer was delayed, conductor Graveline told us in her relaxed manner, due to a broken string. But when Alice Duffy eventually performed, she explained her song, "Ode to Brigid," and sang in a lovely liquid soprano, so charming with her Irish harp that we wished for more. Erna Hooten-Koester sang the touching "Last Rose of Summer" touchingly, with her luminously lustrous high tones.
Polymnia Choral Society female singers wore shimmering necklaces of green shamrocks, while male Polymnia members sported green ties that also sparkled. Their voices were bright and cheery in Irish songs of past and present, and a couple presented a capella effectively. A serious "Garten Mother's Lullaby" brought a violin part that held a moving quality with suitably touching vibrato by Lisa Kempsle. "Hi! Ho! The Rattlin' Bog," sung by the chorus women, was fun with playful percussive effects by Len Symboski.

You couldn't forget "Danny Boy" in an Irish concert, and the men's voices were smooth and mellow in the opening section, the best part of that arrangement that later included an unrelated interlude of piano--for me, the men's deep sound was all that was needed. Perfect!

Before going any further, we should highlight other instrumentalists who added so much color to the songs--Nichole O'Toole on flute and the impertinent penny whistle; James Mcenna, Uillean pipes; and Lello Molinari, bass. And of course, Polymnia's always reliable peanist, Dorothy Travis.

The first half of the program ended with "The Galway Piper," which the fascinating program notes tell us is an Irish drinking tune dating back to the 18th century.

The last part of the program was unusual--a large group of old songs plus letters from the Irish immigrants here in the 1700-1800's, with touching messages of missing families back home--arranged by Mark Brymer. These letters were read by various members of the chorus and Brendan Carroll. Musical accompaniment sometimes made the words difficult to hear, but gradually softened.

Only a few of these songs were well known, but "Molly Malone" was a delight, for which the notes tell us it is "the unofficial national anthem" of Ireland. The program ended with Carroll leading the audience in a sing-along of "My Wild Irish Rose," "Too-ra-Loo-ra-Loo-ral," and "When Irish Eyes are Smiling."

Not only Irish eyes were smiling, sure and 'twas a luvely Celtic Celebration for St. Pat's Day!

Reprinted, with permission from the Melrose Free Press, March 22, 2007

April 6, 2007

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