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Master Singers’ Celtic Christmas is a joy

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Nobody celebrates Christmas like the Sacramento Master Singers.

The Master Singers, under the direction of Dr. Ralph Hughes, have produced a holiday concert of beauty, musical excellence, and joy each season for the past 26 years.

This year’s offering, the first Celtic-themed event in the history of the Master Singers’ Christmas concerts, was delightfully different, and stood up well to the standard of excellence set in years past.

An unusual collaboration between the Master Singers and Men of Worth, a Celtic performance duo, set the tone and stirred in the flavor for this lively and charming concert.

The Saturday evening performance at St. Francis of Assisi church in midtown Sacramento was sold out, and the audience members queued in the cold chatted and reminisced about past Christmas concerts as they waited for up to an hour for the doors to open.

Inside, the lovely church was wreathed in simple evergreen decorations. The pews were soon filled with the sparkle of sequins and the excited chatter of guests shedding their heavy coats and settling in for an evening of musical entertainment.

Soon the lights dimmed and were then extinguished as the traditional candlelight processional began. Yet to audiences familiar with the plainsong and haunting chant of the processional in years gone by, the lilting Ecce Quod Natura was a lovely surprise. Arranged by Michael McGlynn, Dublin composer and founder of Ireland’s national choir, Aruna, the ancient text began the evening with a distinct Celtic flavor. The only accompaniment to the lovely choral harmonies was the crystalline sound of the hand chimes and the steady thrum of the bodrhan (Irish drum).

There Is No Rose followed, and then Angelus Ad Virginem, another McGlynn arrangement of a medieval Irish song once again lifted the chorus into the Celtic spirit. McGlynn’s sweet ballad Christmas Memories brought forth the full tenderness of each voice in the choir.

Men of Worth played a variety of instruments from their Irish and Scottish traditions: in addition to the bodrhan, James Keigher and Donnie Macdonald played guitar, mandocello, concertina, and the octave mandolin. Their rich voices, distinctive accents and quirky colloquialisms added greatly to the performance.

Clifford Shockney, esteemed composer, arranger and accompanist for the Master Singers, worked with the Men of Worth and the chorus to develop some collaborative treatments of songs from the choir’s repertoire and some choral arrangements of the traditional Irish and Scottish tunes sung by the Celtic duo. The resultant blend of traditions and vocal styles was a delightful departure for both groups.

The candlelight processional continued with one of these arrangements, The Rising of the Moon. Soprano Julie Jeness exhibited another musical talent as she played the flute with Tina Harris on piano.

The audience sat in profound silence as the Men of Worth sang Chistmas in the Trenches, John McCutcheon’s poignant ballad about the amazing and spontaneous truce the occurred in 1914 as opposing German and British forces in several locales across the Western Front. Soldiers crossed over no man’s land to exchange songs, small gifts of cigarettes and food, and even to play soccer together in recognition of their shared humanity, even though the following morning would find them once again firing at one another. This true tale evokes a deep spirit of the true love and joy of the Christmas season, and Keigher’s deep baritone was reverent and strong.

There followed Shockney’s arrangements of a traditional Scottish ballad, The Sound of Iona, the beloved Little Drummer Boy, and the Wexford Carol, a 12th century Irish carol, combining the voices and harmonies of the choir and the duo.

Closing out the first half of the program was a beautiful and intricate arrangement of the Peter, Paul, and Mary hit A ‘Soalin’.

The program continued with a blend of traditional carols and some surprising treatments of familiar songs, including Silent Night sung in Irish Gaelic and a wonderful a capella jazz version of The Holly and the Ivy arranged for women’s voices.

The men had their moment with a Patrick Rose arrangement of I Saw Three Ships.

Pat-a-Pan is a favorite French carol which has been reinterpreted many times, and the Master Singers delivered a joyous version as their penultimate selection.

As always, the program ended with the singing and signing of Peace, Peace, a beautiful wish for the world which blends beautifully with the audience singing Silent Night.

There were several interesting instrumental accompaniments throughout the evening. Bass singer David Robinson lent his skills on both the upright and the electric bass to several songs. Thomas Voight is an accomplished drummer and percussionist, and Joseph Silmaro played keyboards. Julie Jenness’ flute enhanced a number of songs as well.

Soloists throughout the program included Stephen Hill, Kevin Mirsepassi, Joseph Silmaro, David Manea, Justin Pratt, William Zinn, Jon Eric Hill, Carol Horner, Mia Watts, and Amber Lidskin.

The collaboration of the Master Singers and the Men of Worth came about “over a whiskey in a castle in Scotland,” according to James Keigher.

In addition to singing together for 26 years, and traveling the country bringing music education to schools and colleges, the Men lead guided tours to their home lands of Ireland (Keigher) and Scotland (Macdonald).

It was on one such tour of Scotland that Master Singers’ alto Mary Patt broached the idea of collaboration. Ralph Hughes seized on the possibilities and enlisted Shockney’s help in creating a blend of choral and troubadour repertoire.

Though the Men of Worth have occasionally sung with school choirs in their travels, this level of cooperation with a large choir is unprecedented for the duo. Neither Keigher nor Macdonald reads music, and having sung together for over two decades, they are so familiar with their repertoire and their individuals tastes and talents that they seem to intuitively grasp the right way to support one another instrumentally and harmonically.

“The biggest adjustment was rehearsing with the Master Singers,” said Macdonald. “We never rehearse, we just stand up and play.”

Both musicians said that they thoroughly enjoyed their work with the Master Singers, and even speculate about recording a joint CD.
As for Hughes, his choir has so enjoyed the Celtic music that he is planning a concert tour of Ireland in 2013 with a workshop with composer Michael McGlynn.

This adventure in music is yet another example of the power that comes from understanding and engaging in another’s experience of life. In recognition of our shared humanity and the language of music which all cultures have in common, The Master Singers are moving us yet one step closer to peace, peace.

The Master Singers and the Men of Worth will perform their Celtic Christmas twice more: on Thursday, December 20 at 7:00 pm, and on Sunday, December 23 at 3:00 pm. Both concerts will be held at St. Francis of Assisi church, 26th and K strees in Sacramento. Both performances are very nearly sold out, but there may be a very limited number of tickets available at the door; call the Master Singers at (916) 788-7464 for information.

The Men of Worth will be performing as a duo in Auburn on Saturday, December 22 at 7:00 pm at the Music and More Theatre; visit their website at http://www.menofworth.com/Calendar for information.

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