It’s a milestone year for the Pipes of Christmas concert, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
“I really can’t tell you how it happened,” says founder and executive producer Robert Currie, of Summit. “I think about how much younger I was in 1999 and it’s staggering at times. We’ve lost cast members. We’ve seen cast members get married, have children. It’s a real arc of life when you think about it.”
This year’s shows — featuring holiday music with traditional Celtic instrumentation, and readings — will take place at the Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, Dec. 17 at 2 and 7 p.m., after a show at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. (both 2 p.m. shows are sold out).
“This is the fullest program we’ve ever offered in content and in length, which I’m very proud of,” said Currie. “All of that credit goes to Steve Gibb, our music director, and composer and arranger. Without his talent, we wouldn’t be able to do any of this. And he has big shoes to follow in our original music director Jeff Rickard, from California, who stayed with us through our 20th anniversary. So we’ve been able to keep an unbroken line of really great musical excellence on the team.”
The shows remain similar from year to year, though there are always new twists as well.
“It’s easily 40 percent the same people (attending) every year,” says Currie. “And they actually say, ‘You don’t have to change a thing, just keep doing it the way it is.’ And I say, ‘Well no, I can’t. Creatively it would destroy me.’ And I know they’d get bored with it eventually, too. So we keep our anchor pieces that everyone looks forward to hearing, including myself, and then I’m allowed to get creative with new music and new sources and new composers, and it becomes a great showcase for them.”
One of this year’s new pieces came about in an unusual way.
“I discovered a 1986 British postage stamp depicting a story called the Hebrides Tribute,” Currie said. “It’s based on an ancient Gaelic folk tale from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, where, on Christmas Eve, fishermen would take to their boats … they’d row out specifically 707 strokes, and then lay their nets. And the 707 strokes is a reflection back to the instruction St. Peter received, to go out and basically feed the hungry. And that catch is brought back and served to the needy families of the islands off the coast of Scotland. We loosely refer to it in English as The Fisherman’s Blessing. After literally months of research on this, we finally found an account of this story that had been all but lost — it goes back to medieval times — on casting one’s nets and fishing and feeding the poor. As Christ was a fisherman of people, this was the apostles’ responsibility. And we’ve interpreted it into a Gaelic song, done on traditional instrumentation.
“It’s never been interpreted this way before. And it will be sung in Scots Gaelic, by our new mezzo-soprano soloist (Cynthian Knight). I’m very excited: The process of seeing a picture of a postage stamp, and then, through lots of sweat equity, seeing it realized as a world premiere piece of music that’s never been heard before … that’s, to me, very exciting.”
Knight is from Annandale, Virginia. “Last April, they held a Scottish Gaelic competition — or as they call it, a mòd — in New York, and she was the top singer,” says Currie. “That was all I needed to hear to bring her in to audition, and make her a member of our company.”
Another new number, written by Gibb, will involve every musician in the show’s cast.
“That’s everything from the big bagpipes and brass and organ to the harp, the cello, the fiddle, the guitar, the string bass,” says Currie. “We’ve talked about it for years and he said it’s time and he’s written a nine-minute virtuoso piece that involves the entire company. The dynamics of it in a live setting are going to be beyond belief.”
Also new this year — though not part of the show itself — will be a “Yule Log” video, featuring drone footage from all over Scotland in the winter, along with recorded music from Pipes of Christmas concerts. It can be viewed by donors to the Pipes of Christmas’ ongoing GoFundMe campaign; visit gofundme.com/f/2023-pipes-of-christmas-concert.
And, finally, a webcast featuring highlights from this year’s concerts will also be available for streaming from Dec. 22 to Dec. 31. It can be ordered at pipesofchristmas.com.
“I really wanted to make sure that our friends in Scotland and Australia and New Zealand and Canada had a chance to experience this concert,” says Currie. “Making it available this way really opens up the world to the concert. We both know that streaming is not the same as a live concert, but it’s the next best thing. And you don’t have to fly across the world.”
For information on this year’s shows and other Pipes of Christmas-related projects, visit pipesofchristmas.com.
Here is some music from the 2018, 20th anniversary show:
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