A masterful collaboration between Iarla O’Lionaird and Ivan Goff

Iarla O'Lionaird and Ivan Goff

The sixth edition of the Irish Arts Center’s Masters in Collaboration featuring singer Iarla O’Lionaird and uilleann piper and flute player Ivan Goff did its best to continue the evolution of a very fine musical series in midtown Manhattan.

A hiccup in the visa process for artists’ abroad -- the bane of presenters drawing on international talent for the United States -- delayed the arrival of the Cuil Aodha native Gaelgoier vocalist until midweek, canceling out the Wednesday night interview which usually informs as well as previews the weekend’s concluding performances.

As a result the artists had less time to work with one another and also with another guest artist, Dan Trueman, a hardanger fiddler recently known for encouraging the use of Norway’s double-stringed fiddle into Irish music.

To add to the challenge they found a harmonium at the last minute thanks to musician Cleek Schrey, who loaned it to them which greatly added to the mix of musical instruments and in accompanying the powerful voice of the iconic O’Lionaird who played it as well.

This series is all about risks and they come from every direction, and it is part of the fascination with creating live performances and not canned ones.

The Sunday night audience was welcomed at the outset by O’Lionaird lightening the dark mood that the intimate black box Donaghy theater sometimes conveys, though I am not sure he was entirely successful in that as the evening ensued.

“Welcome into the void,” he exclaimed, “and we’ll be in there soon along with you.”
There was a heavy undertone to this collaboration due in large part by material selected by the artists for the joint effort, but it wasn’t anything to apologize for because long form story or literary songs in Irish for the non-speaker can set the mind adrift.

However, when the singer is someone as talented and unique as O’Lionaird and the piper as sensitive as Goff who used his chanter, drones, regulator and bellows in the most complimentary fashion, the result was riveting as they marched through their program to the ultimate delight of the crowd.

If the tenor of the show was more serious than the previous edition earlier this year with the comedic Joanie Madden and Seamus Begley, well, that speaks more about how the series can stay fresh and varied.

What it allowed for was more concentration on the craft of the singer and the piper who meshed the powerful words of a native tongue with beautiful melodies that underscored the songs and the tunes that followed them.

As rich as O’Lionaird’s vocals were, they were matched by the deft fingering and playing of Dubliner Goff all evening. The slower pace of the evening allowed us to peer into the souls of these artists in a way that isn’t always afforded us in larger spaces or venues.

Both of these artists made the most of the evening and the circumstances and deserved the greater focus that the series provided them there at the Irish Arts Center. And it also continued to open wider our appreciation of the breath of expression and depth of feeling within our Irish heritage even if it is in a language we do not know but perhaps our ancestors did.

The series provides great exposure for the artists and some risks as well, but there are also risks for the audience in coming along and not knowing what to expect. When they are informed and challenged and ultimately entertained, that is what we all look for in the Masters in Collaboration series at the Irish Arts Center. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

By the way, O’Lionaird has just produced an exquisite new CD called 'Foxlight' on the Real World record label, and he will also be participating in a music and literary festival at Les Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village on October 27 and 28.

And early in January as part of the world music extravaganza Globalfest, a new Irish band called the Gloaming features O’Lionaird, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Caoimhin O Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett formed not too long ago. You can find more information at www.iarla-o-lionaird.net.

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