It was another very successful musician who decreed that “the times they are a changing” over four decades ago, and when it comes to Irish music today that is certainly the case.

One of the biggest catalysts in changing the landscape and the prism in which Irish music is seen and heard is composer Bill Whelan of Riverdance fame. While the success of the popular dance show scored by his musical genius has been unparalleled, this Limerick man prefers to work in solitude and not directly under the spotlight of center stage.

So it will certainly be intriguing to see him come out of the shadows in his first performing role in a few years as he engages fiddler Athena Tergis in the fourth edition of the Irish Arts Center’s Masters in Collaboration from November 17-21.

As in the previous series initiated by the IAC in 2008, a veteran artist with a long string of achievements is matched up with a promising artist whose resume may run a bit shorter.

Whelan, best known for his Riverdance music, has also had great success composing for film, theater and producing music for other artists.

Tergis is a very familiar figure around the IAC in recent years, appearing in a super-sized version of Green Fields of America that was turned into the PBS and DVD video production called Absolutely Irish. She also appears at the annual Christmas shows, and she finds the IAC a very creative environment for the arts.

Whelan and Tergis have crossed creative paths before through Riverdance when she performed in the Broadway production in 1999.

And even more recently Tergis toured with the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra and along with Cora Venus Lunny, a classical violinist, interpreted Whelan’s composition “Inishlacken” from his Connemara Suite that will be part of the IAC program.

They will compose other material together and perform with a nine string ensemble, a percussionist (Robbie Harris) and Irish dancer Mick Donegan.

One of the critical aspects of a joint effort like this is daring to be different and innovative when working closely with another artist in a confined space and time frame.

Whelan, whose traditional lineage goes back to Planxty, doesn’t fear innovation, and actually embraces it.
“The music can’t be kept in a box only to be opened at holidays or just repeated over and over. Playing on your own in a cottage in Clare or on a Saturday night at the local pub long ago isn’t the same for the young people now who are exposed to so much on the Internet. The music has to change or it will cease being interesting and will die,” Whelan told me in a phone interview.

The Masters in Collaboration series will follow the same pattern as the others, with a behind the scenes midweek interview with both Whelan and Tergis by Dr. Mick Moloney, who has shepherded this project he initiated with IAC executive director Aidan Connolly, on Wednesday, November 17 at 8 p.m.

No one is more skillful and knowledgeable at drawing out his subjects and helping to put their respective accomplishments in perspective and perhaps shed light on the direction that the end performances might take. It remains one of the more novel approaches to witnessing art in creation while maintaining some suspense about what we will witness in the finished product in the weekend performances.

The Donaghy Theatre at the IAC is an intimate laboratory for this type of observation, and there will be two final performances on Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. Seats are limited and higher than the usual prices, but these pairings have the potential to be history making.

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Milwaukee leader passes

At a gathering of Irish festival organizers in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway that included over 70 from North America, the Galway politician Eamon O’Cuiv, who is the Irish minister for social protection, opened his welcoming speech last Friday night with very sad news.

Those assembled in the large function room of the Carlton Shearwater Hotel were informed that one of the leading lights of the Milwaukee Irish Fest and its current president, Chuck Ward, had lost his three year battle with a rare melanoma cancer.

Ward had hoped to be on the journey with 20 other festivals represented, and several of his Milwaukee mates that included his brother Ed Ward and sister Colleen Kennedy had to leave early to get home when Chuck took a turn for the worse.

His family and friends in Wisconsin saw Ward’s battle as a profile in courage and leadership that included a fair share of his legendary wit that won him so many friends over the years both in Milwaukee and among his peers in the Irish festival circuit.

That was in evidence the last time that I saw him in action in Milwaukee this summer as he led his 4,000-strong volunteer task force through the 30th anniversary Irish fest that O’Cuiv referenced in his remembrance. (O’Cuiv has been to Milwaukee Irish fest so often he must be considered a volunteer at this stage).

Chuck proudly and bravely took the stage with his band Blarney for the rousing Irish folk songs he championed on behalf of so many legendary singers who went before him like Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, and some who are sharing similar struggles like Paddy Reilly and Danny Doyle.

Ward made many contributions to the city of Milwaukee professionally and as a valued member of the Irish fest team for the 30 years of its existence.

His gracious nature was to serve and share, and he was blessed with a great personality that was as willing to poke fun at himself as he was of others when a lighter touch was called for. But he was easily befriended and valued for his advice to other festival organizers.

I will always remember a fun-filled and long road trip over the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton at a similar Irish festivals gathering three years ago with Chuck and colleagues during the Celtic Colours International Festival in 2007. Wisecracks, wisdom and curiosity and fraternity made him a “hail fellow well met” whose company was always cherished.

Chuck Ward was waked and buried this week and he leaves behind his wife Cathy, daughter Bridget, son Colin, brothers Ed and Jack and sister Colleen. He will be missed but never forgotten.

Connolly for Blarney Star

The Blarney Star concert series has an exciting mix of performers coming up this Friday night at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House starting at 9 p.m.

Damien Connolly, originally from Co. Clare, a whiz on the accordion and the fiddle (like his box-playing father Martin and fiddle-playing Seamus ) will travel down from his Fairfield home to link up with Brooklyn boy Matt Mancuso who is also an exceptional fiddler in the New York Sligo style.

Both came under the musical mentorship of the late Maureen Glynn from Brooklyn in their younger years, becoming fleadh buddies, and now they carry on the flame. Joining them as accompanists will be Mattie’s dad Pete on guitar and Annmarie Acosta on keyboard.

As an added bonus there is a very special guest that night from Co. Fermanagh who is one of Ireland’s finest trad singers and concertina players in Gabriel McArdle.

McArdle sparkled as part of the Hidden Fermanagh project that visited the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as a member of the Northern Ireland delegation back in 2007, and he will also be Don Meade’s guest at the Monday night Landmark Session in Hell’s Kitchen beginning at 8 p.m.

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