By Daniel Neely
There is exhibition happening right now at the Art Institute of Chicago called “Ireland: Crossroads Of Art And Design, 1690-1840.” It opened on St. Patrick’s Day, will run through June 7 and includes over 300 objects from public and private collections that showcase the decorative and fine arts of Ireland of that period. Although I’ve not been to the institute to see it, I have heard its companion album, “Ireland: Crossroads Of Art And Design, 1690-1840 - The Music,” which was made specially for the exhibition. It is a breathtaking companion piece and it’s my great pleasure to write about it here this week.
The CD is a blend of old and new intended to reflect the exhibition’s themes as well as the period it covers. The musicians charged with making this album happen were the great fiddler Liz Knowles (www.lizknowles.com), who curated a number of compositions from period manuscript collections, and the legendary Liz Carroll (www.lizcarroll.com), who contributed a number of specially commissioned original compositions. Both have exquisite taste and throughout the album create a sense of majesty that I feel successfully evokes the spirit of the time.
Joining them in this endeavor is a powerful lineup of musicians, including harpist Catriona McKay, keyboardist Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill (Bothy Band), flute player / uilleann piper Kieran O’Hare (who, like Knowles, is a member of Open the Door For Three), pianist Martin Fahey (who, like Knowles and Carroll, was involved in the album’s production), bassist Trevor Hutchinson (Lúnasa), and percussionist Jackie Moran (Ensemble Galilei). These musicians appear in various solo and group combinations throughout the album and deliver brilliantly.
As one might imagine for an exhibit that explores eighteenth century Ireland, the music of Turlough Carolan figures prominently. McKay’s take on “Carolan's Concerto” is graceful and captivating, Ní Dhomhnaill version of “Carolan’s Farewell to Music” is deeply compelling and Knowles’s work on the lament “Sir Ulick Burke” is utterly beautiful. Although each of these tracks is thoroughly enjoyable on its own, together they indeed tell a compelling story in music about eighteenth century Ireland that surely fulfills the exhibition’s aims.
The album’s ensemble tracks complement these solo features well. Tracks like “The Lough Derg Cross / A Tale Of A Tub / The Potter's Wheel,” “Irishtown” and “Planxty Charles Bunworth / Rose And Kathleen's Slip Jig” (all Carroll originals, btw) all have great energy, are smartly arranged and do an excellent job of expressing the values and sentiment of the time. They are well done and wonderful to listen to.
One of the album’s most hauntingly beautiful tracks is “[It Was] A Magic Mist That Came Over Me One Night And Put Me Astray,” performed by Emer Mayock (flute), Aoife Ní Bhriain (fiddle) and Mick O’Brien (uilleann pipes). This piece appeared on that trio’s 2013 album “Tunes from the Goodman Manuscripts” as “Ceó Draoigheachta Sheól Oidhche chum Fághain mé,” although this version (if I’ve understood correctly) was recorded for TG4’s 2014 Gradam Ceoil broadcast. It has a slightly different feel, but rivals the other recording in terms of quality.
The CD comes with a wonderfully informative booklet. Most of it was written by Fahey, although Knowles, Carroll and O’Hare contribute tune notes for select tracks, Nancy Hurrell and Ann Heymann offer short statements about harps in the exhibition and Karol Mullaney-Dignam provides an interesting essay about the Irish country house. Included in the booklet are beautiful photographs of objects in the collection, arranged to match their place in the exhibition. (Incidentally, Fahey told me that the use of sound in this exhibit was first at the Art Institute and that all the feedback on the role of the music thus far has been overwhelmingly positive.)
This is a spectacular album. It features a beautiful mixture of old and new music from one of the most elite gatherings of musicians you’re likely to find. While this album easily stands alone on its own musical merits, it’s a wonderful thing that an album of this incredibly high standard was produced for a museum exhibit – it sets an important example.
I highly recommend this album. Unfortunately, as it stands now, the CD is only available for as long as the exhibition runs (again, it closes June 7) and it is only available at the Art Institute’s bookstore or through its website, www.artinstituteshop.org. Move quickly if you want a copy of this great album – it won’t be around forever!
Daniel Neely is the Echo’s traditional music correspondent.