After nearly a quarter of a century, and after two challenging years, the annual Pipes of Christmas concert still packs venues with the sounds of Celtic Christmas. Returning this year for four shows at two gorgeous venues, Central Presbyterian Church in Summit and Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, the show — produced by the Jersey-based leader of the Learned Kindred of Currie society, Robert Currie — once again offered a triumphant, pensive, unique and spiritual environment. A real triumph of the soul.
This concert is a living tradition that continues to evolve while staying true to its purpose: offering a traditional, homecoming-style Celtic celebratory concert. Music Director and guitarist Steve Gibb — originally from Inverness, Scotland — was the genius behind many of the new arrangements offered this year.
Dec. 18 at the second of two shows in Summit, the host of newly arranged music and poetic readings, both big and small, included some traditional favorites such as “The First Noel,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Silent Night,” as well as two world premieres: Gibb’s “Ascension,” featuring a beautiful folk ensemble arrangement that poignantly marked the passing of Queen Elizabeth II; and “The Golden Hearth,” a charming and festive harp tune composed by United States National Scottish Harp Champion Rachel Clemente to evoke the warmth and glow of the Yuletide fireplace. Soprano Sharon Lyons — from Dublin, Ireland — also made her “Pipes” debut.
The narrator was the Rev. Susan Currie, who has been a part of the concert family since its inception in 1999, with readers Andrew Weir and James Robinson, who were both in the 1995 “Braveheart” film as the young Hamish Campbell and William Wallace. Weir has gone on to become the world’s foremost interpreter of the poet Robert Burns, and Robinson continues to work in film and television, appearing in “Outlander” and the newly released “Saving Christmas Spirit.”
The opening piece, “The Highland Cathedral,” highlighted bagpipes, brass and organ to form the ultimate opening processional. This was followed by the traditional Christmas song “Joy to the World,” highlighting a beautiful new arrangement with William Peek on organ.
A new piece to the concert, “The Wexford Carol,” is a traditional, beautiful and melodic tune from ages past and was performed by a myriad of virtuosi on their instruments including Clemente on harp; Paul Woodiel and Caitlin Warbelow on fiddle; Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf from Glasgow, Scotland on cello; Mark Verdino on bass; and Dan Houghton on Irish pipes, flute and whistle. Dorman-Phaneuf offered an amazing, smooth and sonoric sound on the cello.
A beautiful arrangement by Gibb of “One Night in Bethlehem” was sung by Sharon Lyons, who offered a pure, angelic voice that soared throughout the venue. Robert Currie mentioned that he had been trying to get Lyons to sing at the concert for several years, and was “excited that she was available this year to come and join the family.” Lyons was, indeed, a magnificent addition to the show. “Love Is Christmas,” a song written and recorded by American singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, was also sung beautifully by Lyons and arranged by Gibb.
Weir’s interpretation of the Burns poem “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” has been perfected over the years and could very well now be said to be the definitive performance. His performance is passionate and real. The meaning of the poem is poignant. The title refers to a man’s possessions. To Burns, however, a man is a man when he is honest — even especially if he is poor. And this type of man is the “king o’ men for a’ that.” The real man laughs at “a’ that.”
Pipe major Alexander Walker, assisted by former pipe major Scott Larson, led the Kevin Ray Blandford Memorial Pipe Band from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. The Solid Brass ensemble — including trumpets, horns, trombones, timpani, glockenspiel and crash cymbals — was led by director Doug Haislip. The pipes were well tuned and the drums in perfect sync with the pipers, creating a nice balance of sound. It was both melodic and compelling music.
There is no Pipes of Christmas without bagpipes, and the full band offered a couple of excellent musical sets that really got the audience going.
Toward the close of the evening, and to honor the long and storied Scots Gaelic lineage of the Learned Kindred of Currie, Lyons sang the first version of “Silent Night” in Scots Gaelic.
The final hymn of the concert has always been the traditional “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and this year was no different. It opened with a rousing brass fanfare arrangement, the brass, bagpipes and percussion entering consecutively to culminate in the uplifting capstone of the concert.
Lastly, the Rev. Susan Currie delivered her traditional closing words “Joy be with you all,” followed by the encore — “Scotland the Brave,” the second “anthem” of Scotland, allowing audience members to express their emotions and let out the energy with a burst of hand clapping, whistles and whoops.
This concert has the feel of a family gathering, with genuine emotional content. Robert Currie has managed to arrange, or rather enable, something that is real.
The online screening of this concert can still be reserved at pipesofchristmas.com,
and donations to this cause of culture are still being accepted. Robert Currie stated that “to keep this concert going requires an immense amount of focus, talent and funds — and to fortify us for next year’s 25th year Anniversary, which promises to be a roof-raiser, please consider investing in this concert.”
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