|Martin Hayes (left) performed with Cleek Schrey (not pictured) and Ivan Goff.|
Bantry House is one of the finest manor houses still operating in Ireland perched high upon a hill overlooking Bantry Bay and the Beara Peninsula.
With the cooperation of the current occupants who are descended from Lord Bantry, the imposing house and gardens are open to the public much of the year and, in particular, have become a special home for music organized by a committed outfit called West Cork Music (WCM) that organizes three great festivals around it cultivating a serious audience who know and respect classical music.
Inspired by a guest appearance with a chamber orchestra by Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, WCM turned to him as artistic director to create a new series of concerts under the august banner “Masters of the Tradition,” with a focus on traditional Irish music over a late summer weekend over a dozen years ago.
Hayes was a fervent believer and practitioner that the genre was the rival of any musical form and worthy of such attention. He also viewed it as an opportunity to selectively recruit musicians he wanted to see and hear and play with which often eluded him and his long-time musical partner Dennis Cahill on the road too much.
It also presented them a setting where the spotlight could shine without all the extra hustle and bustle of a trad festival or fleadh. It opened up new vistas for Hayes and Cahill and has led to the extraordinary multi-faceted collaborations we have experienced in recent years from the pair who will be marking their 20th anniversary next year as a performing duo.
And some of that new-found expertise was amply on display at the Irish Arts Center recently over a 10-day span titled “Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill in Residence with Special Guests.” And while the humble three-story edifice in Hell’s Kitchen would not remind anyone of Bantry House architecturally, the mindset and relationship of performers and audience had much in common and made the series an outstanding success.
Going into the series of eight evening shows, the plan called for eight different guests whom Hayes and Cahill wanted to share some tunes with while in New York in a public and performance mode, and that even included the poet Paul Muldoon who added a literary voice.
So Thomas Barlett, Muldoon, Cleek Schrey, Kyle Sanna, Dan Trueman, Dana Lyn, Ivan Goff and Doug Wieselman all took their scheduled turns and flushed out the admittedly sketchy set list devised by Hayes and Cahill with expected aplomb.
But even Hayes was surprised by the keen interest of his guests who kept returning on different nights like Barlett, Schrey (who also brought along another marvelous Old Time fiddler, Stephanie Coleman) and Goff, who showed off more than just their survival instincts in wanting more of the edgy entertainment mix that Hayes and Cahill were delivering.
Without question Hayes still draws his muse from the lonesome fireside music of his native East Clare, but his flexibility and curiosity allow him to expand the pallet quite widely when it comes to opening the door to other artists.
So on the nights that I attended, extra special guests like singers Declan O’Rourke and Glen Hansard appeared on stage with new and old material, and Jean Butler worked up a couple of dance routines that once again displayed her charm and grace as one of finest percussive dancers in the Irish tradition.
“Jean Butler was interested in our approach to traditional music because it has a contemporary element to it without losing the heart of it while thinking around the edges,” Hayes told me afterwards by phone.
It is this solid ability to work within the tradition with a fierce respect and integrity while still dabbling around the fringes that continue to make it viable in many of the worldwide settings where the pair has appeared with an approach that is just innovative enough to captivate audiences over and over again.
Watching Hayes work in the intimate Donaghy Theatre at the Irish Arts Center for this series was a bit like watching a high-wire act as he and his fellow artists were fairly confident that their collaborative efforts would be entertaining to the always receptive audiences drawn to the center’s fare.
There was just enough pre-performance and anxiety to keep everyone on their toes, but the knowing smiles passed around the stage all week between the super and multi-talented artists quickly dissipated those fears and brought spontaneous delight and applause from the audience.
The series was a certifiable success for Hayes and Cahill and the Irish Arts Center as well for the scope of entertainment it provided.
Once again Hayes nailed it when he said, “It became a kind of community of musicians over the two week span, loose as it was, but it showed a kind of like-mindedness. It didn’t feel like a lonely experience each night as the two of us connected with a lot of people, and even the audience each night in a way that I haven’t experienced before in America.”
Chalk it up to that “Masters of the Tradition” state of mind that may have originated in that beautiful West Cork milieu, but like the music it trumpets it really knows no bounds.