How it’s New York: Presented by the Irish Arts Center and Symphony Space, this Irish Christmas concert has come to feel as much a part of the
season as The Nutcracker. The blending of songs and traditions is oh so New York.
How it’s Irish: It has something of the feel of an Irish house party, Mick says.
Gabriel Byrne was one of the special guests at “An Irish Christmas,” presented by the Irish Arts Center at Symphony Space last weekend. Dr. Mick Moloney has been organizing these events which blend music, dance, interview and readings. Byrne discussed his fond memories of actor Peter O’Toole, who had just died that day, and also read some of his own works-in-progress. Other special guests included Congressman Joseph Crowley, dancer Wayne Daniels, Grace Nono, Tamar Korn, guitar player and filmmaker Macdara Vallely.
The concert began with the “Trip to Athlone” medley, which has begun it most years, featuring Mick on banjo, Athena Tergis and Liz Hanley on fiddle, Donna Long on piano (who brings a lot of great rhythm and harmony to the table) and Billy McComiskey on accordion… with Niall O’Leary, “the dancing architect,” joining in too. It’s always a rousing way to begin the event.
New this year was Liz’s powerful singing of “Carol of the Birds,” in which all the birds find religion. It was a haunting, evocative tune that suited her husky voice. The first special guest of the evening was Congressman Joe Crowley, interviewed by Mick. Did you know Crowledy could sing? well, I didn’t– and it turns out he used to sing in bars back in the day. He did a lovely version of “Raglan Road” (he called it “Dawning of the Day,” but that’s actually another, much older song; poet Patrick Kavanaugh uses the refrain “dawning of the day” and Luke Kelly put it to that tune, but the song “Dawning of the Day” is a 19th-century song, set to an even older air. Just had to point that out.)
Mick’s interview with Crolwey and later with Byrne were outstanding– relaxed, funny, getting sharp insights and fascinating stories from both men.
Philipina Grace Nono, who has become a reegular at the event, appeared, singing both songs from her country and then the Wexford Carol. On The Wexford Carol in particular one can hear her background as a rock and roller, with her belting voice and emotional delivery.
Athena Tergis, who plays with Mick in Green Fields of America, played an original tune, “An Air for Haiti,” where she and her family spend several months each year. The song “The Bitter Withy” came next, presenting Jesus as a bratty kid who has three children drowned when they won’t play ball with him. Mick said that folk songs brought Jesus closer to the people. But I think it’s kind of unsettling.
A high point of the night was dancing from Wayne Daniels, especially in duet with Niall. Wayne is a Carribbean dancer who now teaches in New York. When he whipped his hair around and moved to the music the notes seemed to leap with him. His interview with Mick did not come until the second half though, along with his solo to “Silent Night.”
Now for a few criticisms. While all of the performances are wonderful and the evening is full of terrific music… it would benefit from streamlining and cutting. Three hours is too long. I love to hear Tamar Korn, for example, a terrific jazz singer who sings songs of the 1920s, mimes the fiddle, and brings her Jewish and Yiddish heritage to the table, but since she’s there every year, as is Grace, perhaps the interviews could be shortened.
Also… the multiculturalism on this bill occasionally veers on tokenism. When Tamar prefaced a song by saying she does not practice Judaism, but appreciates her heritage, I felt very uncomfortable. None of the Christmas carols came with similar explanations of personal faith. Why is such a disclaimer necessary? These things need to be considered, if true multicultural outreach is the goal.
Nevertheless, despite these flaws, “An Irish Christmas” is always a fun event. The music, particularly the Irish sets, is outstanding. And the live album of “An Irish Christmas” is one of my favorites, and worth a re-listen every year.