It was plenty chilly outside, but inside, it was a warm and captivating evening. The Jeanne Wagner Theater in downtown Salt Lake City showcased Nina Cooley and Tiffany Draper, the Celtic flutists of Stonecircle. Yes, there were fiddles, vocalists, mandolins, keyboards, accordions, bodhrans, whistles, and guitars, but the flutes rocked my world for about two or so hours Saturday night.
Before I go an inch further down this post, I must confess, I have played (Western concert) flute since the age of 10. I have a smallish collection of flutes and flute music from other countries. If I love to play – and I do – I love hearing flute even more. And if I had to pick a genre for a day’s worth of listening, nine days out of ten, it’d be some form of Celtic. So don’t expect partiality here.
Stonecircle’s Seventh Annual Winter Soltice concert was a holiday tradition for many Salt Lake locals. In the darkness of winter, we found light and hope in the Celtic melodies of old. I was in an especially effervescent mood, as I looked with anticipation to a wine and chocolate party later in the evening and my family’s arrival for Christmas festivities later in the week. (Side note: the wine and chocolate party I so anticipated turned out to be the following week. A story for the AARP moment files.)
The rolling melodies of “Maid on the Shore” transported me to another world of consciousness. The first thing I noticed was that both flutists were miked. I once played my flute in a group where I was not miked and grew weary of friends and family who came to see me telling me they couldn’t hear me. Better to play in my dining room and be heard.
Songs such as “Blackbirds and Thrushes,” “Annabelle’s Bones,” “Wish You Were Here,” and “American Stranger,” were set to a colourful, changing backdrop of clouds and light shapes. The music speaks to the listener, or not. In my case, Irish music always does. Maybe it’s all those Irish great-grandmothers of mine. Interspersed amongst the Western concert flute and the Irish flute were a cache of high and low Irish whistles.
Towards the end of the first half of the concert, string issues sent the guitar player off-stage to tune and led to vocalist Mary Johnston-Coursey’s enchanting impromptu a cappella rendition of the Gaelic tune, “Nach Jassen.”
“The Butcher Boy” was a sad love tale: boy-loves-and-leaves-girl. And the audience learned simple lyrics “Hey!” for “The Pilgrim.” The Irish high whistle solo was especially amazing – no time to breathe!
All of the musicians were craftsmen extraordinaire. Bronwen Beecher, who I have reviewed in solo performance previously this year, delivered her fiddling finesse. Guitarist George Shoemaker charmed the audience not only with his playing but also his new baby daughter. Special guests Steve Keene, Brian Dobson, and Mark Cantor shared their love of all things Celtic with the addition of accordion, keyboard, whistles, and mandolin.
At the commencement of the second half, narrator Mark Cantor asked that applause be held until the end of a long series of songs which comprised the Winter Solstice Suite. “Gaudete” was a four-part harmony sung in a cappella. The depth of submelodies entranced me and I was sitting on my hands to avoid clapping. Just the same, I could have stayed and listened all night. The tunes flowed from the lullaby-like “Sussex Carol” to jiggy “Lilting Banshee,” and ponderous “Bring the Peace.” “The Snows” bled into “A Health to the Company:”
Here’s a health to the company and one to my lass
Let us drink and be merry all out of one glass
Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain
For we may and might never all meet here again
“The Huron Carol” meter reminded me of “Good King Wenceslas.” The final number, “Cantus,” hinted of Enya and Taize. Then the stage went dark. Could it really be over? Surely there would be a standing O! This is Salt Lake City. Ah yes. Everyone gets a standing ovation, in this case, deservedly so.
So taken was I by the encore “The Blacksmith,” that it guided my CD purchase after the concert. This culmination of fiddling, drums, and flutes was spellbinding. I could get lost in Stonecircle’s whirling melodies, and I did that night. Auditory heaven. Flute nirvana. What more can I say?
Bronwen Beecher, Fiddle and Violin
Nina Cooley, Flute, Percussion, Vocals
Tiffany Draper, Irish Flute, High and Low Whistles and Bodhran
Mary Johnston-Coursey, Vocals and Percussion
George Schoemaker, 6 and 12 String Guitars and Vocals
Steve Keene, Accordions and Keyboards
Brian Dobson, High and Low Whistles and Bodhran
Mark Cantor, Narrator and Octave Mandolin
Many thanks to WaveLight Studio