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REVIEW: Celtic Baroque band Makaris charms Mahaiwe crowd on St. Patrick’s Day presentation by Close Encounters with Music

They demonstrated their competence with musical forms that rely more on elegance than complexity to achieve their ends. And they succeeded in ways that some of their more "serious" works never could.

Great Barrington — Close Encounters with Music (CEWM) continued its winning streak on March 17 with a concert perfectly suited to St. Patrick’s Day performed by the Celtic Baroque band Makaris. The program included gigues and reels arranged by various members of the Bach family, along with Irish folk tunes arranged by Beethoven and Haydn, all performed on Irish whistle, bassoon, bagpipes, harp, harpsichord, theorbo, guitar, violin, double bass, and cello—with one soprano for the vocal numbers.

You might attend a concert like this either because you like Celtic music, which is reason enough, or because you like Bach, Beethoven, and Haydn, which also is reason enough. But what if you are interested in hearing a side of these composers you have never heard before? That is what this program was all about. In their arrangements of traditional folk tunes, these men demonstrated their competence with musical forms that rely more on elegance than complexity to achieve their ends. And they succeeded in ways that some of their more “serious” works never could.

CEWM patrons knew they weren’t in Leipzig anymore when Makaris started their set with Johann Christian Bach’s arrangement of “The Broom of Cowdenknowes,” a 17th-century song about rural love and longing beautifully scored for strings, winds, continuo, and soprano. Within two measures, the blended sonorities of the group’s instruments had established the evening’s mood, which, notwithstanding the prodigious contributions of Haydn, Beethoven, and the Bach family, was authentically Celtic in a way that would pass muster with the most die-hard fans of Fiona Ritchie’s radio show “The Thistle & Shamrock” and singers like Jean Redpath.

But the real magic happened when Fiona Gillespie began to sing.

Ms. Gillespie is classically trained but grew up in a Celtic music family, step dancing, singing ballads, and playing the Irish whistle. She holds degrees in voice performance from Westminster Choir College and the University of North Texas, but Early Music Review has described her singing as “distinctly folky,” which means she performs traditional music authentically, not in the stilted manner of an opera singer. “Her delightfully pure voice and subtle ornamentation,” they added, “represent a winning combination.” And with that, the reviewer hit the nail on the head: It is the purity of her voice that carries the day, and it is positively disarming. Early Music America wrote:

Gillespie’s clear diction and Celtic accent add to the authenticity and poise of the music. She also tosses off well-executed trills and melismas in Beethoven’s ‘Sunset’ and a moving upper register in Weber’s harmonically vibrant ‘The Soothing Shade of Gloaming.’

When Bach, Beethoven, and Haydn made arrangements of traditional Celtic music, the result was not authentic Celtic music, but it was but an honest gesture of respect (and at least in the case of the Bach family, genuine affection) from musicians whose technical chops allowed them to toss these things off with ease. They did it because they were paid, but it is easy to hear how good natured they were about it, and nobody is better at conveying their congenial spirit than the Makaris Celtic Baroque band.

See the entire program here.

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