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Sacramento Master Singers: Celtic Connections

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A candlelit performance started the concert.
The streets of midtown Sacramento were filled with green-clad revelers in pursuit of green beer and shiny shamrock beads on St. Patrick’s Day.

At the corner of 21st and J Streets, a different sort of celebration drew a near-capacity crowd. The Sacramento Master Singers chose to honor the holiday with ‘Celtic Connections’, a journey through several centuries of music from the Celtic world.

Artistic director and conductor Ralph Hughes led the 45-voice chorus through an ambitious program of music from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England.

Acclaimed harpist Aileen Kelley provided accompaniment throughout the program, and also performed two solo selections. The ethereal, complex music of the harp is one of the most beloved features of much Celtic music.

From the solemn candlelight processional to the last poignant note, the Master Singers held the audience spellbound.

The program began with a segment entitled ‘Songs of Reflection’, which included an eighth century hymn and a motet in Latin, an Irish Christmas hymn in English, and an heroic hunting song sung partly in Gaelic.

The final selection in this segment, ‘Armaque cum Scuto’ brought together men chanting to the accompaniment of traditional drums with an overlay of otherworldly female vocals in a powerful Latin exhortation against the influence of Satan.

In testimony to the dedication and professionalism of the Master Singers, this first segment was performed by candlelight and the singers used no sheet music.

The traditional drums continued to provide a stirring foundation for the next segment, ‘Songs of Love and War’. Accompanist Clifford Shockney’s lovely arrangement of ‘My Lagan Love’ was followed by ‘The Minstrel Boy’, which was sung by the men alone.

The women rejoined the men for the final song of this section. ‘Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye’, as arranged by Alice Parker, is a heartbreaking, poignant exploration of the devastating effect of war on both the soldiers who serve and the loved ones they leave behind.

The men and the women traded off both the heart-wrenching verses and the low thrumming chorus in piteous recognition of the terrors of war. Their voices blended in such pure intricacy, and the emotion expressed was so mournful and tender that the audience was held in rapt silence. As the last plaintive note died, there was not a sound in the church. With the eventual exhalation of held breath, the crowd applauded in recognition of a very powerful experience.

During the intermission, several audience members mentioned that they had shed tears or experienced physical chills from the emotional piece.

After intermission, the women took the stage for a playful unaccompanied rendition in Gaelic of ‘Cunnla’, a joyous 14th century ‘baby tickling’ song. Assistant Conductor Tina Harris and alto Carol McCormick carried the solos on ‘Siuil a Ruin’.

After a beautiful harp solo by Aileen Kelley, the men returned to sing a glorious rendition of the most famous of Irish songs, ‘Danny Boy’.

The men continued the program with a rousing and animated Irish working song ‘Dulaman’, which is without a doubt the best song about seaweed ever written. Yes, seaweed. Sung in Irish with much enthusiastic choreography, the song was a definite crowd pleaser.

This segment of ‘Songs of the Irish Countryside’ concluded with Michelle Iwase singing the verse of ‘Blackthorn’ against the beautiful harmonies of the chorus.

‘Songs of England and Scotland’ were among the most familiar of the evening. After the entire company sang ‘The Sailor and Young Nancy’, the women presented a lovely rendition of “Scarborough Fair’, featuring the pure clarity of Emily Burr’s soprano.

The ‘Skye Boat Song’ and ‘Loch Lomond’ both tell of the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion against the English in 1746. ‘Loch Lomond’ featured beautiful solos by bass Chris Dainard and tenor Matt Metcalf.

The program closed with ‘The Voice’, a marvelous song celebrating the connection of the Irish people to their history, their homeland, and their spirit. It brought the audience to their feet in thunderous ovation.

Dr. Ralph Edward Hughes and the Master Singers receive accolades from the crowd.
The Sacramento Master Singers have been a cultural treasure of choral music for over 25 years under Hughes’ direction. They promise to continue providing beautiful music for many years to come.

The Celtic Connections concert will be repeated at 8:00 pm on Saturday, March 19 and at 3:00 pm on Sunday, March 20 at the first United Methodist Church, 21st and J streets in Sacramento. Tickets are available at the door or at www.mastersingers.org.

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