A Musical Exploration of the Celtic Lands
Over the centuries they were literally marginalized, driven to the western and northern fringes of Europe. Today, Celtic folk are found in Galicia (northwestern Spain), Brittany (northwestern France), Cornwall (southwestern England), Ireland and Wales and the Isle of Man (west of England), and Scotland (north of England). Nevertheless, the Celts—though highly diverse—are one tribe, with a distinctively flavored culture. Descriptions of their literature, music, dances, and art range from “wild” to “yearning” to “magical”; it’s hard to pin down the Celtic flavor.
Local audiences had a rich opportunity to taste that essence when the Quinebaug Valley Singers presented a program of songs and instrumental music titled “Celtic Spring” in May 2019. An ensemble of 55 singers and six instrumentalists presented songs and instrumental solos coming directly from or inspired by the traditions of almost all the places listed above. There were vocal solos, choral numbers both huge and tiny, instrumental solos, an instrumental jam-session at intermission, and (as always) live program notes from QVS Director Nym Cooke. As at the first “Celtic Spring” in 2012, young fiddler Hunter Foote strolled through the audience, playing a dazzling solo. The concerts also featured William Thomas on uilleann pipes, Tim Loftus on guitar and pennywhistle, Kala Farnham on Irish harp, Jon Richt on percussion, and Brooks Milgate on keyboard.
For those who missed these remarkable concerts, or those who'd like to relive the experience, CDs will likely be available at future Wings of Song concerts. “Wild”? Wait ‘til you hear the chorus’s women sing the Galician stomping dance-song “Pandeiretada.” “Yearning”? Few songs yearn more romantically than “The Wild Mountain Thyme,” which some claim is a Scots tune, and others trace to Ireland. “Magical”? The concert’s opening number, “Mont Saint-Michel” (“Tuchenn Mikael” in Breton) is magical from its first fluttering arpeggios in harp, guitar, and piano to the final fading-away of its repeated last line, “There were but sheep upon that hill.”
Then there's William Thomas’s wild, skirling solo on the pipes in “Tuchenn Mikael,” the yearning of “Galvadenn” (Breton for “Appeal”), which builds steadily throughout its seven minutes, and the magical gloaming time depicted so beautifully in the hushed Scots song “Ca’ the Yowes tae the Knowes” (“Call the Ewes to the Knolls”). Many more examples could be given.
This is music of the outdoors—of forests and rocky crags, of wide waters that can’t be crossed o’er, of the “calling of the seal” from out in the sea; music sent forth by “The swallow from her distant clime, / The honeybee from drowsy cells.” It’s music of sparkling Spring mornings and long Summer evenings. It’s music of celebratory unity and proud defiance. And it’s music of love longed for, and love joyfully found. Those who shared this Celtic journey with the Quinebaug Valley Singers will long remember it.
An American Christmas
In December 2019, Wings of Song (formerly Quinebaug Valley Singers) inaugurated its new name with a program of American Christmas favorites from colonial times to the present. As always, the performances were standing room only, and memorable.
A huge variety of Christmas music was included in the chorus’s program: everything from 18th-century “fuging-tune” settings of “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” to the original version of “Jingle Bells” (with a very different refrain from the one we’re used to) to an irresistibly jazzy “Sleigh Ride” to choral works for the season by three Wings of Songs members (Ted Bradley and Donna Dufresne of Pomfret, Conn., and Nym Cooke of Petersham, Mass.). There were audience sing-alongs, as always, and during the intermission keyboardist Brooks Milgate accompanied bass Kim Burdon in the words of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" set to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun."