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I thought it would be some kind of integrated, cross-pollinating concert, with the great Irish musicians of The Chieftains and the North Carolina Symphony leading each other to ever more exciting music in a grand céilí in Meymandi Concert Hall. Instead, it was just odd.
The evening opened with a 30-minute set by The Chieftains' three core members and their assorted music-partners, including the silver-voiced Alyth McCormack. Along with harpist Triona Marshall, guitarist/accordionist Tim Edey, and fiddlers Jon Pilatzke and Tara Breen, The Chieftains founder (52 years ago!) Paddy Moloney and his bandmates since the 1970s Kevin Conneff and Matt Molloy were all crowded into a small area downstage right. The remainder of the downstage area was covered with a hard surface for the step-dancers who flitted in and out. Behind them in the gloom waited the podium and chairs for the orchestra conductor and musicians.
Now, half an hour with Paddy Moloney, with his smart mouth and his tin whistle and uilleann pipes; Matt Molloy and his heavenly flute; and Kevin Conneff with his bodhrán and equally resonant voice, is nothing to sneeze at. Accompanied as they were by the other instrumentalists and vocalists, it should have been a set to live in memory. The band sounded fantastic in Meymandi. Yet, it was oddly rote and slick, with the hot music only occasionally burning to the surface, usually in conjunction with a short burst of step dancing by Jon Pilatzke, his lithe wife Cara Butler, and his brother Nathan Pilatzke, who were sometimes joined by frisky girls from Raleigh's Tríonóide Academy of Irish Dance.
The dancing fiddler Jon Pilatzke is great in both worlds, but Nathan Pilatzke is a bona fide dancing fool, with some moves that seemed impossible. The three together, with their special Ottawa Valley version of step dancing, put fancy shows like Riverdance to shame. Their style uses all the standard figures of Irish step but relaxes some of its rigidity of form in favor of the buoyancy and twinkling-fast percussive footwork of tap and the wild upper-body action of clogging at a barn dance. If we are lucky, they will return to the area with their show, The StepCrew.
After intermission, the orchestra, with William Henry Curry on the podium, squeezed itself onto the back half of the stage, and The Chieftains and friends returned to their area – with their backs to the conductor and orchestra. Essentially, the NCS played back-up band to their guests. It did not do either group any favors. Traditional Irish music neither needs nor wants the thick texture of massed strings, and to my ear, the trombones sounded terrible with the lilting tin whistle. Hearing the zestful Irish fiddlers struggling to break clear of the violins reminded me of when Linda Ronstadt sang in front of the syrupy Nelson Riddle Orchestra.
The NCS joined The Chieftains on several pieces from their score for the 1998 mini-series on the Irish in America, The Long Journey Home. Although it uses many pieces of traditional Irish music, those tunes have been molded into movie music, which by definition excludes depth and complexity in favor of emotional manipulation. The NCS is so much better than this that I felt embarrassed for them. The addition of a choral group from UNC added density before the arrival of the Wake & District Public Safety Pipes & Drums.
The only piece in which the orchestra's talents shone was the band's Galician Overture. (Galicia is a Celtic area in northwest Spain.) The blend of Spanish sounds with the Irish, and the more open compositional structure, made room for meaningful orchestral additions. The orchestra also played with good humor an extremely silly piece by Moloney called "Planxty Mozart," combining the Mozart horn concerto with a certain Irish jig with many similarities. The NCS's principal French horn player Rebekah Daley got into the sport of the thing, playing a few more riffs than expected.
In short, the combination program was awkward and one-sided. It may have been devised to draw new patrons to the NCS, but the orchestra was so far in the background (and to tell the truth, totally dispensable) that it seems doubtful that those who came for The Chieftains will return for actual classical music.
Note: Ironically, the Chieftan's co-founder, Sean Potts, passed away the day this review was posted. For details, click here.