Grammy Winners Highlight Celtic Christmas Concert
Published: December 8, 2005
ATLANTA—Top regional performers will join two Grammy Award-winning artists—Celtic and banjo virtuoso Alison Brown and Bill Whelan, composer of the musical “Riverdance”—in contributing to the 13th annual Atlanta Celtic Christmas Concert on Dec. 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. at Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.
Over the past 12 years the Atlanta Celtic Christmas Concert has become known as one of the most popular events of the holiday season and a colorful pause for spiritual refreshment. The concert, directed by James Flannery, celebrates in music, dance, poetry, song and story the Christmas traditions of the Celtic lands and their connections with many similar traditions in the American South.
Also featured are musicians and dancers representing the Highland Scots tradition of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, as well as a number of the top traditional performers of the Southeast, including Irish tenor and storyteller Flannery, the Buddy O’Reilly Band, fiddler Maggie Holtzberg, singer Barbara Panter, Welsh harper Kelly Stewart, the four-part harmony of Nonesuch, Highland pipers and dancers, Irish step dancers and Appalachian clog dancers.
One of the highlights will be the premiere of “Quis Est Deus” (“Who Is God?”), a choral setting by Whelan of a seventh-century Irish prayer-poem in which a fairy child questions St. Patrick on the meaning of the Christian God he is bringing to Ireland. “Quis Est Deus” will be performed by the Emory Early Music Ensemble under the direction of Jody Miller, with a counter-tenor solo by Khaemille Parham.
Brown typifies the innovative programming of the concert. Recognized as one of the top performers on the five-string banjo, in 1991 she became the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year Award. A graduate of Harvard and the holder of a master’s in business administration from UCLA, in 1993 she and her husband Garry West founded Compass Records, known today as one of the most prestigious roots-music labels in the country. Alison has recorded seven critically acclaimed solo albums, including the 2001 Grammy Award-winning “Fair Weather.” At the concert, she will be joined by her husband, who is a bass player, and fiddler Joe Craven (both Atlanta natives) in a wide range of Christmas selections reflecting their interest in both Celtic and Appalachian music.
Another highlight is the return of three lively performers from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, who “rocked” last year’s sold-out audience at the Schwartz Center with their high-energy performance. Fiddler/dancers Troy MacGillivray and Richard Wood and acrobatically expressive spoon player Gerry Deveau are among the preeminent representatives of the Highland folk traditions that have been celebrated in Cape Breton since the 18th century.
Emory composer Kendall Simpson will premiere an original work, which is a setting of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s “St. Kevin and the Blackbird.” The poem depicts a medieval saint who, while praying, falls into a mystical trance so deep that he allows a little bird to nest in his outstretched hand until an egg she has dropped is hatched and her fledgling flown away. “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” will be performed by the Emory Dance Company with original choreography by Lori Teague.
For Flannery, the host of the concert as well as an internationally known interpreter of Irish song and director of Emory’s W. B. Yeats Foundation, the wide range of performance traditions in the program reflects the eclectic nature of Celtic spirituality itself.
“For St. Patrick, it was relatively easy to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity,” he said. “That’s because they already understood the world as holy—all the world, not just parts. That mystical sensibility is particularly found in the nature imagery woven into the prayer-poems of the early Celtic church. Thus, what we try to convey in the concert is that the spirit of Christmas is just as equally found in a rousing dance tune as in a song or poem that evokes the wonder of the Christ Child bringing renewal at the darkest time of the year.”
The concert is a combination of rollicking high spirits with moments of tenderness and charm, a celebration not just of Christmas but also of home, of families, and of community. Toe-tapping dance rhythms and haunting Celtic and Appalachian fiddle tunes may seem an unusual way to honor the birth of the Infant Jesus. But as the fairy child asks of St. Patrick in “Quis Est Deus”: Is the presence of God not found as much in the celebration of life’s abundance as in more conventional forms of worship?
For ticket information call the Arts at Emory box office at (404) 727-5050.