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The Asheville Choral Society’s final concert of their 37th season capped a stellar year of fine singing and inspired programming. This “Celtic Dreams” concert, an imaginative mix of music selections, historic letters, even a mini primer on Irish history, enlisted local musicians who are specialists in the field, including The Magills. The connection between Gaelic culture and our Appalachian mountain heritage is well known, and by drawing on local musicians who have been playing that music for years in our midst these connections were rendered more concrete. Asheville’s Central United Methodist Church was a congenial acoustic space for this large mixed chorus directed by Dr. Melodie Galloway and assisting pipers (Rosalind Buda and EJ “Piper” Jones), drummer (Matthew Richmond), flutists (Beth Magill and Jones), guitarists (Jim Magill and David Stevenson), string players (violinists Kendall Hale and Maria Potapov, and bassist Trevor Stoia), and accompanist Brad Curtioff.
Dr. Galloway is a savvy programmer who not only plays to the strengths of her chorus, a large, community-based, auditioned ensemble, but also creates a program the audience would enjoy. The soloists change, and the repertoire is eclectic, usually featuring some pieces with crossover influences, and usually there is one big piece. This program focused on music from Scotland and Ireland, and America where so many immigrants landed. Clearly they are singing works the chorus enjoys, evidenced by the full, rich sound they produce.
The first half of the program centered around Scottish music with lyrics by Robert Burns. The lyrics to the poignant and contemplative opener “Ae Fond Kiss” (arr. Stuart Calvert) were penned following the end of an affair the poet had with Mrs. Agnes M. Lehose. Next came “I’ll Ay Call in by Yon Town,” a Scottish folk song arranged by Mack Wilberg, in which the hopeful sentiments of seeing “bonnie Jean again” were underscored with a bustling energy and repeated short phrases. The men were tacet for the familiar “Auld Lang Syne” arranged by Mairi Campbell and David Francis for women’s chorus, and featuring Amanda Cantu Pace as soloist. The most challenging piece on this half of the concert was “The Gallant Weaver” by James MacMillan which required control and concentration as the women were frequently divisi a 5-6 parts (the sopranos often hanging in the higher tessitura, pianissimo), and all were executing dissonant, polyphonic parts, a sort of play on the theme of weaving.
“Loch Lomond” brought three tenors to the fore (David Berkey, Dennis Campbell, and Rick Clark) in a splendid arrangement by Jonathan Quick, its ending in a rhythmically infectious syllabic accompaniment to the sung text bringing a loud round of applause. Two works on the program explored the theme of the mother-daughter connection. “I Can See Her Face” exhibiting the writing talents of choir members Deborah Reeves (lyrics) and Kara Arndt Irani (music), received its world premiere and a warm reception. “Dúlamán,” an Irish folk song about courting, arranged by Rollo Fisher, provided a rousing closer to the first half with the colors of string bass, violin, and penny whistle enhancing the mix.
The intermission was only a break in the choral program, as pipers Buda and Jones regaled the audience with several tunes. The Magills took the stage and with wooden flute and guitar played three sets of fast reels and jigs, joined on several of them by Jones who also played the small pipes and wooden flute.
The music for the second half opened with Patty Griffin’s “Mary,” a contemporary Christian song with unmistakable roots in the country music idiom. This was splendidly sung by MacKensie and Tessa Galloway Kvalvik, daughters of Galloway, with Jim Magill on guitar and Mom on piano. This simple music aimed directly at the heart stole the show, bringing many to their feet in ovation.
The big piece of the evening was Letters from Ireland, a choral suite of traditional Irish songs interspersed with authentic letters written from Ireland to family members between 1716 and 1906 (read by Dubliner James Hammond), arranged by Canadian composer Mark Brymer. The suite is by turns whimsical, funny, tragic, and deeply sad, as the fate of the Irish — years of famine, political domination by the English, the tribulations of immigration and making one’s place in America — is chronicled in letters and in song. The last letter read was Jonathan Swift’s bitter letter from 1716 on the unimaginable hardships the Irish had endured. Some musical highlights were “Wild Rover,” “Whiskey in the Jar,” “Skibereen” and “Paddy Works on the Railway," songs the chorus clearly relished and sang their best. After this emotional wallop, the program could well have ended there, as the following two works, “Caledonia” (Dougie MacLean, arr. Melodie Galloway) and Roger Emerson’s “Riversong” could not match the collective impact of Brymer’s suite.