The holiday season is always a special treat for the music lover as it never fails to be a time filled with the most exquisite music. In the pantheon of 2017 Christmas concerts, however, one stands out as truly unique and quite amazing. Tapping into our most primal human emotions of heritage and family, and through their use of ancient instruments and classic seasonal texts, the Pipes of Christmas concert at the Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, Dec. 17, offered a majestic and powerful but intimate concert experience.
An unbroken flow of traditional and contemporary tunes, married with inspiring readings of poetry, and scripture significant to the Christmas season, filled the concertgoer with a unique Celtic Christmas homecoming.
The Clan Currie Society’s Pipes of Christmas concert, now in its 19th season, returns more impressive each year, never failing to amaze audiences with unique artistic combinations that seem to affect everyone in attendance most profoundly. There is an incredible array of modern and ancient instruments onstage; Scottish Great Highland bagpipes, Irish Uilleann bagpipes, great organ, brass, timpani, drums, glockenspiel, Celtic harp, wooden flutes, tin whistles, violin, guitar, cello, string bass, piano and accordion. The musical contingent from California includes organist William Peek, the finest pipers and drummers of the acclaimed Kevin Ray Blandford Memorial Pipe Band led by pipe major Martha Hall, and the concert’s talented music director Jeff Rickard, who co-arranged several of the pieces incorporating bagpipes, brass, percussion and organ with the beloved former and now sadly deceased pipe major Kevin Blandford.
The music and poetry of the evening are all tied together by the exquisite narration of one the Society’s midwestern members, Susan Currie. The authentic Scottish brogue is provided by accomplished performers from across the sea, including reader-actors James Robinson and Andrew Weir, who were both in the “Braveheart” movie. Celtic harpist Jennifer Port also made the journey again this year, accompanied by family members from the north of Scotland.
Metropolitan area talent included the powerful Solid Brass ensemble, directed by Doug Haislip, local Celtic favorite Susie Petrov on all types of keyboards, Christopher Layer on Irish pipes, flutes and whistles, and Broadway musicians Paul Woodiel on violin, Steve Gibb on guitar and Sarah Hewitt-Roth on cello.
The audience was treated to the most amazing concert opener: a solo snare drum playing a martial 4/4 beat pattern from the front of the church, soon joined by a solo piper playing the most majestic of melodies, the Highland Cathedral. The full pipes and drums joined in, supported by the bass and chords of the immense church organ, followed by the brass, timpani and assembled percussion. The march culminates with all of the parts merged together triumphantly for a restatement of the majestic theme that, when complete, leaves the audience in an absolute swell of Highland pride. If one has never heard this magnificent procession, it’s a kind of Ravel Boléro meets Parry’s I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me.
With the tone established, the concert flowed naturally to another powerful but recognizable piece — “Joy to the World,” with melody played by the Highland bagpipes with organ and brass accompanying — but then calmed down through introspective readings and more peaceful songs.
A most wonderful version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was offered next on the Uilleann pipes and string ensemble, and then “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
A great highlight of the evening was the original world premiere piece, Beautiful Things, written to celebrate the 1879 vision of the Virgin Mary at Knock Shrine in Ireland by composer Cormac De Barra, one of Ireland’s leading musicians and composers. Concert organizer and producer Robert Currie felt a special connection to this miraculous event as a fellow clansman by the name of John Curry saw the vision with his own eyes back in 1879 in Knock, Ireland. A 5-year-old at the time, he was the youngest witness of the vision, having been hoisted upon his cousin’s shoulders to see “beautiful things” — the vision of Mary and Joseph on the wall. (He was re-interred in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City earlier this year.)
A further treat was the traditional “Silent Night,” sung in the Gaelic language by Port in one of the most poignant moments of the evening. This song derives its gravitas from the mesmerizing nature of the Gaelic language, peaceful and intimate. It just sounds ancient, because it is.
The music and poetry of the concert ebbed and flowed thusly until the approach of the grand finale “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” heralded by trumpet fanfares, poignant and powerful. This hard-hitting version of the old classic crowns all versions heard in the metropolitan area and possibly across the globe. Quite frankly, nowhere have I heard this song better performed — organ, brass, percussion and full pipes and drums band. What could possibly top that combination? Nothing, really. The glory of Scotland meets Christmas in Summit.
The Pipes of Christmas are a hometown experience of warmth, peace, heritage and tradition, power, glory and majesty. Thank you, Clan Currie, our local Scottish heroes.