The Learned Kindred of Currie society presented its 25th annual production of “The Pipes of Christmas” under the musical direction of Steve Gibb, Dec. 16 at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York and Dec. 17 at the Central Presbyterian Church in Summit. The concert highlighted traditional Christmas music arrangements but also featured an eclectic mix of new material performed on a vast array of instrumentation, with meaningful and spiritual narration.
This concert is unique, with many special moments, treats and nuances, emanating the true essence of a Scottish Celtic Christmas: The holy night.
Santa does not appear during the concert, elves don’t run up and down the aisle, and fake snow and special lighting are not used to intensify the performance. Rather, as one concertgoer put it on Dec. 17, “now that the ‘Pipes’ concert is here, it truly feels like Christmas.”
Indeed, the concert succeeds on both a visceral and an intellectual level: Much of it is offered in the Scottish Gaelic language, and every piece of narration and erudite prose or touching music is deeply felt and well woven into a seamless presentation. From the vibrations of the organ, well performed by William Peek, to the traditional folk instruments accordion, fiddle, harmonium, small pipes and Highland bagpipes, and the brilliance of the brass and percussion, everything is felt within the body and truly touches the soul.
The prologue opening “I Horó ‘s Na Hug Òro Eile (As She Walked Through the Fair)” was a sweet and tender homage to dearly departed members of the company. The folk harmonium performed by Chris Ranney provided a mysterious and ancient feel. This opening sentiment was not lost on the loyal audience, many of whom have been attending this concert regularly over the past 25 years, and knew well many of those who have died.
“Highland Cathedral,” the concert’s traditional opener, then awed the audience with full bagpipe, brass and organ accompaniment. This tune, composed in 1982 by Ulrich Roever and Michael Korb, was inspired by the St. Columba Gaelic Church (known as the Highland Cathedral) in Glasgow, where all the clan chiefs met to pledge to live in peace and end their constant feuding during the reign of King James I. The tune is regal and stately and is heard on pipes regularly; combined with brass, timpani, glockenspiel and organ, it takes on a truly majestic tone, always thrilling the “Pipes of Christmas” audience.
The Kevin R. Blandford Memorial Pipe Band, under the direction of pipe major Martha Hall, was again on hand as the “old friends” they have become, with pipes and drums as the cornerstone instruments that put the pipes in the “Pipes of Christmas” concerts. Tuning the bagpipes is always challenging, especially when playing with organ, as special chanters (melody pipes) are needed to match the organ’s pitch. Keeping in mind that bagpipes have four reeds per instrument, it is truly a feat to create that beautiful Highland sound that the pipe band produced — a testament to the ear of these fine musicians who fly in each year from California to perform in these concerts.
As for the erudite prose … narrator Susan Porterfield Currie as well as actors James Robinson and Andrew Weir, who both appeared in the 1995 film “Braveheart,” were all brilliant as readers of Scottish poetry and prose. Weir has become the premier interpreter of poet Robert Burns in North America, and Robinson enjoys continued success as a co-star of The Hallmark channel’s new offering, “A Merry Scottish Christmas.”
Singer Cynthian Knight, who was making her “Pipes of Christmas” debut, is from Virginia but has studied in Scotland and won the New York City Tartan Week Mòd competition in April and, previously, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games Gaelic song competition in North Carolina. Her mezzo-soprano voice was strong, solid in musical pitch and authentic and confident in her vocal pronouncement of the Gaelic. She caressed “Silent Night” with a great sensitivity and was thrilling in her vocals in the newly written Scottish compositions.
The sheer number of sponsored vocal pieces by the Learned Kindred of Currie is inspiring, but three over this past weekend was downright impressive. This amount of original material either produced or sponsored by the Learned Kindred of Currie is immeasurably important to Scottish and Celtic culture in general.
The premiere of “Beannachd an Iasgair (The Fisherman’s Blessing),” written by Gibb in collaboration with “Pipes of Christmas” founder and executive producer Robert Currie, highlighted lyrics from the “Carmina Gadelica” (a collection of Scottish hymns, prayers, songs and more published in 1900) about an old-time story from the Hebrides where the local fishermen would row 707 strokes out from shore to cast their nets, and give their catch to the poor and needy on Christmas day. The piece is beautifully arranged as the gorgeous melody flows in Gaelic, sung by Knight in 6/8 time with undulating piano by Ranney creating a sense of the rhythm of the sea. The flute drifted in and out over the voice and strings to create a sense of floating over the water.
Another premiere, “Ceann-bliadhna Sona (Happy Anniversary),” was originally a harp tune written by Eyler Coates to thank the Learned Kindred of Currie for their sponsorship. Gibb added instrumental parts to create a fine and beautiful arrangement of the short but memorable tune.
The premiere of “Fichead ’s a Còig (Twenty-Five)” was a stunning piece of complex time signatures and harmonies in three sections starting with an Air by the piano, strings and cello, and then moving into reels in 7/4 and 4/4 time signatures. The third section of the work evolved into a mesmerizing 6/8 tempo, realizing the main melody on bagpipes and incorporating the entire ensemble of musicians onstage, driving to a triumphant conclusion.
Further beautiful and traditional Christmas arrangements of songs such as “Joy to the World,” “The Wexford Carol,” “Angels We have Heard on High” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” were offered as regular and well received “Pipes of Christmas” concert pieces.
The Solid Brass ensemble, led by director Doug Haislip, included trumpets, French horn, trombones and tuba with Adrienne Ostrander on timpani and Wes Ostrander on percussion. It provided festive ensemble support and offered a rendition of Vangelis’ “Eric’s Theme” from the film “Chariots of Fire,” with a beautiful horn solo.
Of special note is the cast of highly accomplished string players including Gibb on guitar, Paul Woodiel and Caitlin Warbelow on fiddles, Sarah Hewitt-Roth on cello, Mark Verdino on bass and Rachel Clemente on harp; most have performed regularly in orchestras on Broadway. Other instrumentalists included Dan Houghton on smallpipes, flute and whistle. Ranney offered a unique and haunting sound on the harmonium throughout many of the works, in addition to piano.
When reflecting on 25 years of presenting and sponsoring music and readings, one has to respect this dedication. The Learned Kindred of Currie are admired worldwide for caretaking these elements of culture so dear to people not only in our area, but throughout North America and in Scotland, and throughout the world. Robert Currie was proud to say that “the Learned Kindred of the past and of modern times have always and still does consider it an honor, as a bardic family, to act as custodians and sponsors of language, culture and heritage for people today and for future generations to enjoy and build upon.”
Highlights of the concerts are available for Internet streaming through Dec. 31. Visit pipesofchristmas.com.
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