Michelle mulcahy

Harpists are busier than ever across U.S.

Today I write from the air, en route to “CelticFest” in Jackson, Miss., for one of the American South’s great celebrations of traditional Irish music. Each year, festival organizers Don Penzien and Valerie Plested put together an admirable lineup, and stacked with groups like Téada and Bua this year again sets an impressive standard. Festivals like CelticFest are great, not just because they give folks an opportunity to see and hear top quality jigs and reels, but because they get musicians together for tunes and catching up, which is something so important in this music. (The 17th annual CCÉ Irish Folk Festival in Fairfax, Sept. 22 – anyone in? Donegal fiddlers Peter Campbell & Caoimhin MacAoidh will be there! For more, visit www.ccepotomac.org.)

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

I’ve had a good bit of harp-related material passing through my inbox as of late, of which I will write about presently; but in the spirit of festive catching up I want to report on what some of the harpists leading the scene here in the U.S. are up to before addressing the published materials.

The great Eileen Gannon is back in St. Louis after a summer of gigging and festivals, playing around town, teaching at St. Louis Irish Arts and preparing for the Harpers Getaway Weekend in Gettysburg, Pa., in early November. (For more info, visit wafhs.org/getaway.) Marta Cook, another wonderful harpist and teacher who teaches privately, is about to start her “Irish Music Toolbox” class (a class intended for musicians on any instrument, really) at the Irish Arts Center in New York City, and (among many other things) recently transcribed and created harp parts for Deborah Henson-Conant, a Grammy-nominated harpist, for her upcoming tour with guitar legend Steve Vai. Maeve Gilchrist has been all over the U.S., touring in support of her 2011 album “ Song of Delight,” and with the band the Forge (maevegilchristmusic.com). And finally, harp maven Kathy DeAngelo is finishing up preparations on the 20th Annual Harpers' Escape Weekend, which will take place October 5-7 at Rutgers in New Brunswick NJ. (See www.harpersescape.com for more information.)

Incidentally, DeAngelo tells me that one of the harpists performing at the Escape, Grainne Hambly, once played with Irish harp legend Michael Rooney in the Belfast Harp Orchestra. A neat coincidence, because Rooney recently sent me two books of his own non-harp compositions, “Aifreann Gaeilge” and the “de Cuéllar Suite.” “Aifreann Gaeilge,” a Comhaltas-sponsored publication, includes musical arrangements for ten hymns and nine instrumental pieces. The hymns (in Irish, without translation) are provided both in piano-vocal and small-sized orchestra arrangement, while the instrumental pieces are arranged solely for small orchestra. The hymns, in particular, are plaintive but deeply expressive. Alternatively, the music in the “de Cuéllar Suite,” based on the story of Captain Francisco de Cuéllar, a survivor of a Spanish Armada ship that ran aground off Sligo in 1588, is very much varied and adventuresome, moving through many different textures and moods. Both pieces are appropriate for professional level presentation, but I think that Celtophile directors of college level music programs (and perhaps those of talented high school groups) will want to take notice. Although both books contain a few passages some will find challenging, most of the material is elegantly straightforward. Rooney’s music provides a brilliant window into Irish music’s more composerly side and will reward thoughtful performance. To learn more, visit draiochtmusic.com.

Finally, there’s the majestic album “Suaimhneas” from the amazing Michelle Mulcahy. I was first acquainted with Mulcahy’s playing on the amazing albums she did with her father Mick, and sister Louise. But “Suaimhneas” is a completely solo effort, and one that will attract much deserved attention to a familiar musician with so much to say. Each track here is just beautiful – it’s clear that the young Mulcahy is playing with the ear and touch of someone much older. Harp fans will revel in how well the harmonies and rhythms in her right hand complement the melodies in her left. I’m particularly fond of the reels “Morning Star / ...,” the hornpipes “Galway Bay / ...” and the jigs “O’Sullivan’s March / ....” In addition, there are several airs and each one – especially “An Bhutais” and “Amhrán Mhaínse” – is a killer. Intimate and confident, this is a brilliant album from one of the best. If you like the harp, it’s absolutely one to have.