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Pop review: The Chieftains work their musical magic in Nashville

chieftainsWhat, is it St. Patrick’s Day already?  Nah, Nashville just felt like “Dear Ould Ireland” on Thursday night, what with cloudy skies, rain and the presence of Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

Moloney and his legendary Irish folk band are in Nashville this weekend to perform a pops concert with conductor Albert-George Schram and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Interestingly, Thursday’s opening-night program felt like two different concerts.

During the short first set Moloney and his veteran band and dancers took to the stage by themselves to perform authentic and intimate Irish folk music. This terrific experience was like listening to the Chieftains up-close-and-personal at Matt Moloney’s Irish Pub.

The extended second set, which lasted well over an hour, was more like a Chieftains PBS special. This time, the Chieftains played their familiar jigs, reels and ballads with the lush strings of the NSO in the background. The concert lost some of its authenticity and folksiness at this point, but it gained in its sense of romantic sweep.

And like any good TV variety show, the second set featured its fair share of guest performers and surprise celebrities, from the Tennessee Scots Pipe Band to (SPOILER ALERT) country sensation Vince Gill.

The undisputed star of the first set was unquestionably Moloney and his tin whistle. This instrument has a mere two-octave range, but that didn’t stop Moloney from exploring a world of tone colors and emotions.

He played his whistle with a bright tone and deft technique, which allowed him to send forth cascades of sparkling notes into the concert hall. His phrasing was elegant and often wistful – one would expect nothing less from a lyrical Irishman. He embellished these melodies with glistening grace notes and slides.

There were many other highlights from the first set. An expressive performance of “Maneo,” a tribute to Spain’s Celtic heritage, was one of them. I’ll never forget the beautiful bell-like soprano voice of Alyth McCormack in the traditional tune “Carrickfergus.”

The NSO usually opens its pops concerts, but on Thursday the orchestra decided at the last minute to let the Chieftains go first. After intermission, Schram and the NSO finally took the stage to play a couple of Leroy Anderson’s Irish arrangements – “The Irish Washerwoman” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me” from Irish Suite. Both featured the sort of lush strings heard in those Golden Age of Hollywood soundtracks. Schram also led the audience in a sing-along of such popular Irish fare as “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Harrigan” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”

The Chieftains returned to the stage in high style, performing the jaunty “March of King Laois.” They continued with a selection of songs from the 1998 film “Long Journey Home” (for which the Chieftains won a Grammy). Vince Gill lent his expressive falsetto to the performance of “Shenandoah,” which also featured the luminous accompaniment of the Nashville School of the Arts Madrigal Singers.

The Chieftains subjected Mozart to PDQ Bach-like treatment, turning one of the composer’s Horn Concertos into an Irish jig (NSO French horn player Leslie Norton proved to be a good sport in this shenanigan). Later, the Tennessee Scots Pipe Band added their mournful drones to the “March to Battle.”

Irish step dancing plays an important part in every Chieftains concert, and for this weekend’s program the band is showcasing some of the best dancers around. Cara Butler, younger sister of Riverdance lead dancer Jean Butler, gave the evening’s standout performances. Chieftains’ dancer Nathan Pilatzke also performed with distinction, as did all of the members of the Nashville Irish Step Dancers.

Incredibly, the Chieftains are celebrating their 50th anniversary this season, and judging from Thursday’s concert they obviously have no intention of ever slowing down. Irishmen (and honorary Irishmen alike) should make every effort to catch one of this weekend’s repeat performances, since the pipes, the pipes are calling.

Click here to listen to an interview with the Chieftains on NPR.

The program notes for this weekend’s concert are here.

If you go

The Chieftains perform in concert with Albert-George Schram and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22 and Saturday, Feb. 23 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $44 to $129. Call 687-6400 or click here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.