The 23rd annual production of the Pipes of Christmas by the Learned Kindred of Currie bravely and boldly returned to the live stages of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York on Dec. 18, and the Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, Dec. 19.
Tight oversight and concern for the health of all, due to the pandemic, were of paramount importance to the concerts’ executive producer Robert Currie, commander of the Learned Kindred of Currie. At both venues, all performers and concertgoers were required to produce confirmation of approved vaccinations, wear face masks and seat-distance (some church pews were blocked off to permit that).
The well-chosen repertoire, identical at both shows, offered a mix of old favorites and new works. The powerhouse opener — “Highland Cathedral,” scored for bagpipes, organ, brass and percussion — sounded magnificent as the pipers marched in. Other similarly orchestrated pieces included “Amazing Grace” and the show finale “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” There is no combination of instruments to rival organ, bagpipes, brass and percussion blending to create such a unique and impressive sound of majesty, power and glory.
An even greater myriad of instruments and narrators was included in the service under the direction of music director Steve Gibb, originally from Inverness, Scotland. The narrator was the Rev. Susan Porterfield Currie and the readers were actors James Robinson and Andrew Weir, who both appeared in the great Scottish patriotic film “Braveheart” (1995); they all have been beloved by loyal “Pipes of Christmas” attendees for years. The readers’ dramatic and expressive readings in broad Scot accents were both impressive and beguiling.
The ensembles featured were The Kevin Ray Blandford Memorial Pipe Band under the direction of pipe major Martha Hall from Redlands, Calif., and the Solid Brass Ensemble of New Jersey under the direction of Doug Haislip. The pipers, playing an ancient instrument known to be notoriously difficult to keep in tune, stayed true and precise the entire concert, constantly re-tuning during their offstage segments. The bagpipes were fitted with specially made B-Flat chanters to better match the more modern instruments onstage. Over the years, the pitch of the bagpipe chanter, the main melody pipe, has been driven sharper in the quest for a “brighter” sound so different chanters were required.
Five arrangements were written for Highland bagpipes including “Highland Cathedral,” “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Amazing Grace” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
The solo cast was a who’s who of the Scottish folk and Broadway community including soprano Margaret Kelly from Falkirk, Scotland; Dan Houghton on smallpipes and whistle; Rachel Clemente on harp; Caitlin Warbelow on fiddle; Susie Petrov on keyboards; and Steve Gibb on guitar. Musical talents further included Sarah Hewitt-Roth on cello, organist William Peek and Mark Verdino on string bass.
New pieces to the concert included “Hymn to the Saviour”; the traditional and beautiful tune “In the Bleak Midwinter”; and “St. Columba,” composed to mark the 1,500th birthday of the founder of Scotland’s Iona Abbey, and scored for harp, violin and cello.
A riveting musical homage was offered to Stephen Sondheim: his “No One is Alone” (from “Into the Woods”) by singer Margaret Kelly, beautifully arranged by Gibb for voice, harp, cello and guitar.
Longtime Solid Brass percussionist Chap Ostrander — who had performed in every “Pipes of Christmas” concert since its debut in 1999, and died just a few months ago — was honored with his son Wes’ rendition of “This Too Shall Pass,” performed on the vibraphone. This moving tribute was deeply appreciated by the company of the concert and most certainly by his wife Adrienne Ostrander, who is the timpanist in Solid Brass.
With so many moving parts to the performance, stage manager Pam McCaddin had a lot to coordinate and acquitted herself brilliantly. The concert is a complex yet seamless mix of narration, music, dramatic poetry and spirituality, which, put together as nicely as it is, acts as a kind of Celtic hypnotic, lulling one into a sense of complete cultural immersion.
In addition to the tributes to Sondheim and Ostrander, a final note of memorial was offered by the Learned Kindred of Currie for the passing of Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, Robin Morton of The Boys of the Lough, longtime event photographer Warren Westura and others.
Robert Currie said that “concert proceeds support a vibrant scholarship program with a strong emphasis on music at leading institutions.” In addition to ticket sales, support for the concert was supplied by Investors Bank, the Best Western Murray Hill Inn and Suites, The Piper’s Cove of Kearny and Scottish Heritage, USA.
A video of concert highlights is being prepared to stream over the Christmas holiday. The dates and times will be posted on the concert website at pipesofchristmas.com, and at Facebook.com/ThePipesofChristmas.
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