Bill Whelan, the Grammy Award winning Riverdance composer, has always been the most approachable of Irish music stars. Although his decades-long career has been incredibly successful, he has none of the grand manner that seems to beset so many of his own contemporaries. For Whelan it has always been about the music and the sheer joy in the making of it.
Just ask U2, Kate Bush, the Dubliners or Davy Spillane, all of whom have worked with him on classic albums that he helped to realize. It’s Whelan’s mastery of the Irish tradition that has made him a star, but it’s reverence for the music that has made his legacy.
This month Whelan returns to the Irish Arts Center for one of the standout concerts of the Imagine Ireland yearlong festival of Irish culture. Called “An Evening With Bill Whelan” (and featuring the supernaturally gifted Irish fiddler Athena Tergis), the concert will feature an orchestra and special guests that will include singer Morgan Crowley and Irish dancer Mick Donegan for four performances only, beginning Saturday, October 29 through Tuesday November 1, at the slightly earlier curtain time of 7:30 p.m.
Whelan will turn the evening into an event by unveiling the U.S. premiere of two of his latest compositions, titled After the Titanic and Jazzical Cyclebike. The former is based on Derek Mahon’s poem and will be sung by Morgan Crowley, and the latter piece marries jazz and the traditional Irish fiddle so organically you’ll wonder why it’s so rarely done.
Also included in the evenings program will be excerpts from well known Whelan pieces like Carna, Timedance and, of course, Riverdance, as well as a bit of lively improvising with his guests on stage which will give audiences a rare glimpse into the composer’s world.
For over three decades working as a composer, producer and arranger Whelan has broken ground across musical boundaries in a career that, it’s no exaggeration to say, has played a major role in ensuring the continued relevance and vitality of Irish music in the 21st century.
On screen Whelan’s compositional work includes the score for the film version of Brian Freil’s Dancing at Lughnasa, which starred Meryl Streep. Whelan has also scored two breakthrough Irish films in Some Mother’s Son (starring Helen Mirren) and Lamb (starring Liam Neeson).
In 1992 Whelan was commissioned to write The Seville Suite for Expo ’92 in Seville, Spain and his work there led to a further commission, titled The Spirit of Mayo, which followed in 1993.
Whelan was then honored with the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album for his breakthrough Riverdance CD, which created an international sensation.
In recent years The Connemara Suite, a trilogy of pieces written for chamber orchestra, premiered at Carnegie Hall in March 2005. Meanwhile Whelan has taught at Princeton University and is on the boards of Berklee School of Music in Boston, the University of Limerick and the recently established music education body Music Generation.
All the while Whelan has been keeping busy composing, of course, and is currently working on a new theatre work commissioned by the New York Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center.
In between times he is also working on a musical for Ireland’s premier theater company Rough Magic. It’s a measure of his influence and acclaim that so many diverse and accomplished venues and companies are lining up to work with him around the world.
At the Irish Arts Center concert (which we warn you now will be a sell-out) Whelan will be joined on stage by a performer who is an ideal match. The Suzuki-trained violinist and composer Tergis has performed in traditional, classical and pop settings all over the world from Riverdance-On Broadway to the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing to national tours with the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemmons and The Green Fields of America.
Fans of the Irish Arts Center will remember her from her luminous appearance in Absolutely Irish, the concert documentary filmed live at the Irish Arts Center, and from her featured performances in the Center’s unmissable annual holiday celebration “An Irish Christmas.”
For tickets visit www.irishartscenter.org or call (866) 811-4111.