Reflecting upon the most recent host of holiday concerts, The Pipes of Christmas 20th Anniversary Concert truly stands out as the most unique one to have experienced. Audience members don’t just hear this concert, but absorb it. Two beautiful venues — the Central Presbyterian Church in Summit and the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York — provided the spectacular settings for the December shows, which are sponsored by the Clan Currie Society under the direction of Robert (Bob) Currie, Commander of the Name and Arms of Currie, as appointed by the Lord Lyon King of Arms.
This concert focuses on the glory of the birth of Jesus as seen through the eyes of colorful Scottish music and prose. Kilts, bagpipes, assorted Celtic instruments and the writings of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, fortified by massive church organ, brass and timpani ensemble, create both a delicate and forceful experience.
While many recognize holiday standards such as “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” these traditional songs are played with various combinations of Highland bagpipes, Scottish small pipes, tin whistles, wooden flutes, Celtic harp and brass.
The Solid Brass ensemble, a local group lead by director Doug Haislip, is long associated with the Pipes of Christmas experience. The trumpets, horns, trombones, timpani, glockenspiel and crash cymbals helped to add majestic power to the music, especially when combined with the powerful church organs. This particular combination, with the further addition of Highland bagpipes, is something to be savored and long remembered. Emotional and powerful.
The uniqueness of this concert can be measured further with interesting and fresh arrangements of Christmas classics, the interpolation of the classic texts and poetry into the experience, and the introduction of original and new compositions. Folk and orchestral instruments were melded well to create an interesting version of “I Wonder As I Wander,” done with violin mixed with Celtic themes on small pipes and whistle, both running simultaneously, at times to great effect. The world premiere of “Carolina Christmas” (see video below) highlighted the Scottish traditions in the Americas.
“Braveheart” film stars James Robinson (who played young William Wallace) and Andrew Weir (who played young Hamish) were on hand to lend gravitas with their mesmerizing Scottish accents in narration of Scottish poems such as Robert Burns’ “A Man’s a Man for A’ That.” Gillebrìde MacMillan, a true modern Scottish bard and featured musician in the television series “Outlander,” was on hand to sing several times, including the Gaelic song “Sìth, Sìth, Sìth” (“Still, Still, Still”) in the traditional tongue. (see video below)
Scottish national harp champion Jennifer Port also sang “Oidhche Shàmhach” (“Silent Night”) in Gaelic. Further interesting moments included a Scottish snare drum solo by the Kevin Ray Blandford Memorial Pipe Band’s drum sergeant on the traditional pipe band drum. The Scottish snare is a unique percussive instrument that is tuned to a higher pitch than a regular concert snare and has two snares, both on the top and bottom, for crispness and accuracy — all done to cut through the loud, pervasive sound of the pipes in ensemble.
Currie even joined in by starting off the second half of the evening singing “Star of Wonder” after he greeted the audience. He was soon joined by the onstage Celtic musicians for a fine old Celtic-country folk-like rendition of the hymn.
He mentioned that many of the participants and concert musicians on the stage were in fact at the original concert 20 years ago, and love to return to experience the power and glory of the music in the fine church settings.
The Rev. Susan Currie has been serving as narrator since the first concert in 1999 and delivered beautiful words, closing the show, as always, with “Joy be with you all.”
The final grand hymn of the concert is very traditional but incredibly powerful. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” opens with an original and rousing brass fanfare arrangement, followed by the organ and then, of course, full pipe band, which marches in for the final verses. The entire company joined in at the end for a standing, hand-clapping ovation to the traditional march-off, “Scotland the Brave.”
Bob Currie stated that this annual show has always been intended to “entertain, inspire and showcase brilliant musicians, present inspiring poetry from the British Isles and to celebrate the coming of Christ during Advent.” He also mentioned that there is much more to the concert as well: “We are able to maintain the Society’s scholarship and outreach programs while continuing to support the Scottish arts community.”
Judging by the ecstatic audience applause, there is no doubt the company will be back next year to offer more amazingness.
The Clan Currie Society presents the 18th annual Tartan Day on Ellis Island — featuring traditional music, the premiere of a new exhibition on Scottish history and more — on April 4 at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. For information, visit facebook.com/TartanDayonEllisIsland.
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