Thank You to everyone who came out to experience “A Celtic Summertide” with us at the Oliver Art Center in Frankfort! It was a lovely evening of music and art made all the lovelier by the warmth of your company.
The gallery became filled to capacity before the concert began and so many audience members were asked to sit in hallways or stand where possible. Unfortunately many others had to be turned away due to legal limits for capacity at the venue.
We apologize for any disappointment and inconvenience this may have caused any of our friends. As part of our planning for the next summer concert in Frankfort, we are working to secure a larger venue in the hope that you will all join us again for another wonderful evening.
The concert program was a journey across the Celtic realm with music from the Shetland Islands, Scotland, Ireland, and Nova Scotia in many different combinations of instruments.
We were honored to be joined by Emily Curtin Culler, soprano, who premiered a brand new collection of traditional Irish folk songs set for soprano and wind quintet.
In addition to the musical journey, we were delighted to be joined by Frankfort artist, Ellie Harold, who dazzled our audience by bringing a brand new painting to life over the course of the program.
Just a few days before the performance, our founder, Jason McKinney, was invited to perform in Studio A at Interlochen Public Radio and share a bit about the program and talk about working with the music of Turlough O’Carolan. You can listen to the full interview here and watch Jason performing a harp solo in Studio A on the IPR Facebook Page.
Thank you to our entire Northern Michigan community for helping to make our performance a success. We are especially grateful to all those who gave donations toward our upcoming recording project.
One of my fondest memories of moving to our home in northern Michigan was waking up on the morning after the move, looking out the window, and seeing the old ash tree at the edge of the front lawn. It was majestic and stately, easily setting itself apart from the scraggly ironwoods around it.
As seasons rolled by, I saw the tree in many different lights and characters, in sunlight and moonlight. It became a prominent feature in my mental map of our property. And so, when it became apparent the tree was suffering a slow death by infestation, my heart sank. We were powerless, unable to save the tree and its sisters.
The ash tree plays a significant role in Celtic mythology. The ash tree was often seen as the central column of the Tree of Life. Sometimes referred to as the World Tree, the ash was believed to be a bridge between worlds — like a cosmic axis running from Annwn (the lower world), Abred (this world), Gwynvid (the upper world), and disappearing finally into Ceugant (eternity).
When the arborists came in May 2017 to remove the ash trees, I tried to carry on with my office work. I tried ignoring the chainsaws and chippers roaring mere feet away, but it was impossible to deny the irreversible and permanent changes taking place outside. I was gradually overcome with a heavy, inexpressible sadness. Hearing a bittersweet tune in my head, I sat at my piano and wrote it down. With an uncharacteristic finality, I wrote “The Old Ash Tree” at the top.
Knowing the ash tree’s importance in Celtic symbolism and lore, I felt it was appropriate to orchestrate this tune for our Celtic concert. But while exploring the tune further — turning it over and over, adding layers, expanding themes — something unexpected happened. The metaphor behind the tune expanded beyond the ash tree to encompass my own family tree.
My paternal grandfather (Paw Paw Bryant) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease around 1997 when he was in his early sixties. The news was hard to bear, and — having witnessed the disease overtake many of his siblings — there was not a lot of hope for the future.
Paw Paw was a constant presence in my childhood — a bottomless source of encouragement, discipline, and inspiration, always making time to indulge our curiosities. He was gentle yet persistent in doling out wisdom. He was nearly always right, but rather than tell you so repeatedly, he would usually set out to prove it or suffer impressive injury in the attempt.
Always a fan of spinning tales from his childhood, he fostered in me a love of storytelling. He seldom scolded me even when it was apparent I might be exaggerating details to make my story more compelling.
One of my most vivid memories of Paw Paw is when he told me he often climbed persimmon trees to pick fruit for his mother and sisters. I was skeptical, but before I could complete my sentence, he had shinnied up the trunk of the old persimmon tree, and was readying to chuck the fruit down to me. The best fruits, he said, are in the tops of the trees, and Paw Paw was always right.
He instilled in me and my brothers a work ethic that’s unrelenting, fascinated with seeing a job through. Though he may have sometimes been the very reason we were in danger, he was also the reason we were perfectly safe and had no reason to be afraid. To my mind, he’s never aged a single year, but reality tells a different tale.
It’s been 20 years since his diagnosis. While it’s nothing short of a miracle that he’s still with us, watching his slow descent into the barrenness of the disease has been painful. On visits, I’ve witnessed his mind oscillate unpredictably between the present and the past. I’ve seen genuine fear in his eyes as he describes losing himself, getting lost in the woods — a place he’s known like the back of his hand. He can no longer venture out on his own.
The Old Ash Tree is dedicated to my grandfather, Bryant McKinney. In it, I hope to capture his strength, the beauty of the humble life he’s led, and his role as a central axis in my family, the main branch in our tree of life. I also wanted to portray his bravery and stubbornness, his constant fight against a disease that steals his mind inch by inch, day by day.
I’ve woven a central tune throughout the piece, similar to a rondo form. Each time it returns, it reminds me that Alzheimer’s may silence our loved ones, but it doesn’t erase them. Paw Paw hears us, but he can’t always let us know that he understands; he remembers and loves us, but he can’t always express it.
Writing the piece was difficult for me because it meant confronting my grief and sharing it at the same time. Deciding on an ending was probably the most challenging moment. Our lives don’t end with neat and tidy cadences, and I didn’t think it was fitting for this piece to do that either. Instead, the central tune slowly retreats, weightlessly drifting off into the light.
When I visit the stump of the old ash tree, I still sense the space that immense tree occupied. Its roots remain, still holding the earth in place. The rings of its life, now on display, are weathered the color of stone. When a breeze stirs the slowly encroaching understory, I look up to see the opening it left behind in the canopy. Sun streams down, warming the forest floor. New saplings are slowly emerging.
When I began studying lever harp in 2010, one of the volumes of harp music I purchased was a collection of tunes by O’Carolan*. Exploring the tunes while also teaching myself to play the harp, I eventually read more and more about the composer, developing a growing curiosity about the particular tunes I kept coming back to.
Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) was born somewhere in County Meath (most likely Nobber [Irish: an Obair]) during a time of unrest in Ireland. Throughout his lifetime, an ongoing struggle for power and dominance raged constantly between Britain and Ireland, Protestants versus Catholics. The country was torn apart by oppressive, unfair laws which impoverished and disenfranchised many natives. While O’Carolan’s career as a traveling composer, musician, and poet brought him into the homes of families on both sides of these conflicts, history shows he managed to have broad appeal without ever betraying his loyalties to Ireland and Catholicism.
There is scant information known of his life and career as little was documented. What we do know of his biography is largely comprised of pieced together anecdotal accounts. As a child, O’Carolan was educated thanks to the generosity of the wife of his father’s employer (Mrs. MacDermott Roe). Roughly around age eighteen, O’Carolan caught smallpox which blinded him completely. In an effort to save his future, Mrs. MacDermott Roe sent O’Carolan to a harpist where he trained for three years to become proficient.
What follows is an interesting scene. Upon completing his musical studies, Mrs. MacDemott Roe presented the 21-year-old O’Carolan with a sum of money, two horses, and a sighted guide to be his companion. From there, he was on his own and this was to be his only option: a career as an itinerant harpist.
In a story that might have easily have ended in tragedy, O’Carolan went on to become one of Ireland’s most famous and prolific composers. Relying solely on the generosity of his patrons, for nearly 50 years he roamed the Irish countryside from Dublin to Galway and all points north composing songs and entertaining the rich and powerful. By the end of his life, he’d amassed a reputation which always preceded his arrival. He was received not as a traveling minstrel but as a welcomed friend. Weddings and funerals were often postponed until he arrived!
Most of O’Carolan’s compositions were kept alive by harpists, fiddlers, and flutists who taught them by rote to their students. Though there are extant books published during his lifetime which contain one or two O’Carolan tunes, volumes of his collected works did not begin appearing until the late 18th century. At last count, there are 214 verified tunes attributed to him with several dozen others of dubious origin.
Because of the long path each of his compositions traces through history and retelling, we know very little about them other than possibly which patron they were written for and the homes or castles in which they likely premiered. In some instances, lyrics written by O’Carolan have been unearthed and matched with specific tunes, but in the absence of musical notation it’s uncertain how these songs would have been sung or accompanied. Unfortunately, O’Carolan’s works are preserved only as single melodic lines. How any of the tunes would have been harmonized by O’Carolan is literally anyone’s guess!
When I began compiling repertoire for Manitou Winds’ “A Celtic Summertide”, including tunes by O’Carolan was an instinctual decision and provided an excuse to learn more about his life and work. Seeing the bare melodies as an adventurous challenge, I selected four of my favorites, compiling them into a suite I entitled O’Carolan’s Symphony for flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and lever harp.
Click each tune name to read a brief history and see the original melodic line.
courtesy of IrishPage.com
While performing in those stately homes in Ireland, O’Carolan chanced to hear the music of Corelli and Vivaldi performed by visiting musicians. Biographers say he was intrigued by their art and absorbed as much of their sophisticated style and form as he could with his limited musical education and his musically-limiting instrument. In O’Carolan’s time, a harp could only be tuned in one key and could not play any accidentals.
Rather than attempt to recreate what O’Carolan himself might have done with these tunes (which would have amounted largely to guesswork), I chose to compose O’Carolan’s Symphony in a style I felt would indulge O’Carolan’s own musical curiosity while giving a nod to the colorful anecdotes peppering the many written accounts of his life. To further aid the storytelling aspect of the work, I chose to imagine the varied personalities and daily lives of the people for whom O’Carolan named these tunes.
While maintaining respect for the form and melody inherent in each tune, I incorporated modern harmonies, added countermelodies and varied textures, changed a few rhythms… ultimately scoring the entire work for instruments that either didn’t exist in O’Carolan’s day or have evolved to a great extent. I hope the work is a fitting homage to the inspiring if not somewhat legendary life story of Ireland’s last great bard.
*There is some debate among scholars as to whether Turlough O’Carolan (Irish: Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin) should be referred to as “O’Carolan” or simply as “Carolan”. Though historic record confirms the composer referred to himself as “Carolan,” as did his closest friends (completely ignoring his first name), the “O'” prefix is universally included in modern usage when formally referring to someone whose surname is preceded by it. My personal preference is to include the prefix out of respect to the composer.
For further reading about the life and music of Turlough O’ Carolan:
O’Sullivan, Donal. Carolan: The Life, Times and Music of an Irish Harper. Cork, Ireland: Ossian Publications, 2001 .
Rowsome, Catríona. The Complete Carolan Songs & Airs. Dublin, Ireland: Waltons Publishing, 2011.
Picture the scene: The year, 1880-ish. Ballysadare (Irish: Baile Easa Dara) – a tranquil bayside village in County Sligo. The poet William Butler Yeats, who had spent many summers here as a child, returns for another sojourn. In his wanderings about the village, he comes upon an elderly Irish woman who seems to be troubled by a song she can’t remember. As she goes about the duties of her day, she sings the same lines over and over to herself, but can’t remember what comes next…
Down by yon flowery garden my love and I we first did meet.
I took her in my arms and to her I gave kisses sweet
She bade me take life easy just as the leaves fall from the tree.
But I being young and foolish, with my darling did not agree.
Yeats also found her song troubling, but perhaps for different reasons — he wanted to know the rest of the story! In the end, he constructed his own answer by writing a poem based on the few lines the woman could remember. His poem, An Old Song Re-Sung appeared in his 1889 volume “The Wanderings of Oisín and Other Poems”:
Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.
In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.
— “An Old Song Re-sung”
Down By the Salley Gardens
W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)
By the time it was published, Yeats had come to realize he’d written a poem about a fairly well-known song. As it turns out, the song the elderly woman was futilely trying to recall was Ye Rambling Boys of Pleasure, but she could only call to mind the second stanza. The similarity between Yeats’ first stanza and the lines of the second stanza of the original song were too close to ignore. To acknowledge his accidental plagiarism, Yeats published his poem under the title An Old Song Re-Sung. However, when it was republished in 1895 it became known as Down By the Salley Gardens, a title which has firmly stuck.
And, the rest is history… except that what really imprinted Yeats’ poem in our hearts was the tune which was eventually married to it in 1909. Sadly, this tune was torn from yet another song (The Mourlough Shore, aka The Maids of Mourne Shore or The Mourne Shore) which will ever be overshadowed by the poem that stole its tune!
A story ripped from its song, turned into a poem, and then married to a tune borrowed from yet another song — what a tangled web! Aside from revealing the transient nature of tunes (which seem to wander effortlessly from poem to poem until they find their true destiny), what might we glean from this fable of tunes and texts? Perhaps the moral is that — in spite of the tune originally given to the words which may have been intended — we cherish more the words we forgot sung to the tune that got away.
In arranging this beloved song for our program, I sought to bring out all the bittersweet feelings from the simple but timeless poetry which Yeats wrote in an effort to finish the story the old lady couldn’t remember. To accomplish this, I call upon the 34 strings of the Irish harp, the mellow breeze of the flute, and the beautiful voice of our special guest soloist, Emily Curtin Culler.
If you’ve attended a Manitou Winds concert, recently, you’ve no doubt experienced the wonderful voice of Emily Curtin Culler. Whether singing an aria from a Baroque cantata, a classic German lieder, or a traditional Irish lullaby, Emily’s voice has tremendous dynamic range and is tirelessly light on its feet. She is a consummate chamber musician who brings sensitivity and musicality to every performance.
Emily came to northern Michigan by way of Boston. A soprano Choral Scholar with Boston University’s Marsh Chapel Choir, she performed weekly services for audiences throughout New England and around the globe via WBUR.
She’s also an original core member of the Lorelei Ensemble. The ensemble specializes in performing lesser-known early music while also collaborating with living composers to produce innovative programming. (Hear recordings of Emily performing with Lorelei HERE!)
An in-demand performer and avid interpreter of new music, Emily is also a non-profit and arts management professional. Presently, she is Leadership Annual Giving Manager at Interlochen Center for the Arts and Interlochen Public Radio.
Last fall, when I began creating repertoire for “A Celtic Summertide”, I knew the program’s central element would be juxtaposing our instruments (most of which are not Celtic folk instruments) with traditional Celtic tunes. Since many of the tunes are also beloved folk songs, I couldn’t resist including a few of these. For a new collection of Irish Gaelic songs, I knew Emily was our ideal collaborator!
Trí Amhráin as Éirinn (Three Irish Songs) is a suite of three traditional Irish songs in modern settings for soprano and wind quintet. The opening song, Thugamar Féin an Samhradh Linn (We Brought the Summer with Us), is a centuries-old tune sung to celebrate May Day (Bealtaine) and the beginning of summertime.
Bábog na Bealtaine, maighdean an tSamhraidh,
Suas gach cnoc is síos gach glean.
Cailíní maiseach go gealgháireach gléasta,
Thugamar féin an Samhradh linn.
Doll of the May, maiden of Summer,
Up every hill and down every glen,
Beautiful girls brightly dressed,
We brought the Summer with us.
Though sources claim the text and tune originated in early 15th-century Ulster in what is now primarily Northern Ireland, we can’t be certain. The precise age of the text and whether it was always married to this tune is also a matter of speculation as other versions exist alongside completely different tunes.
The song was sung by young women and men performing as “Mummers” or beggars during the Bealtaine celebration. Roaming door to door singing, they would have offered garlands of hawthorn, holly, and flowers in exchange for food and other gifts. Their garlands were believed to ward off fairies (mischievous little people) and thus bring good fortune to the recipient when placed at the entrance of their home.
I was inspired by the summery images in the stanzas (“yellow summer from the sunset…”, “the cuckoo and the lark are singing with pleasure…”) which were particularly inspiring in the dead of a northern Michigan winter. I also fell in love with the tune — it’s lilting phrases, for me, painted a lovely landscape of rolling hills and flowery glades. I employed the vivid colors of the wind quintet to bring these landscapes to life while parading the soprano’s line through them, spreading summer tidings.
The second song, Seoithín Seo Hó (Hushaby), is a lullaby whose tune is believed to predate its text. The 20th-century song collector Eileen Costello noted in her 1919 anthology (Amhráin Mhuighe Seóla) that many believed the tune was sung by the Blessed Virgin to lull the Christ Child, and so it was traditionally sung without lyrics. Costello credits the text to a Rev. O’Kelly of Galway. In keeping with tradition, alternate stanzas of the Irish lullabies are often hummed rather than sung.
While at first glance the lyrics are sweet and sentimental, one stanza warns that children are at risk of being abducted by fairies (a common theme in the folklore). Apparently, the fairies steal a child’s soul, exchanging it with an old or sickly fairy (a “changeling”) who inhabits the child’s body and soon dies.
Ar mhullach an tí, tá síogaí geala
Faoi chaoin ré an earraigh ag imirt is spoirt.
Seo iad anair iad le glaoch ar mo leanbh
Le mian é tharraingt isteach san lios mór.
Atop the house, there are bright fairies
Playing sport under gentle rays of the spring moon.
Here they come to call out my child
Wanting to draw him into their mound.
A number of Irish lullabies make mention of fairies as a way of coaxing children to close their eyes — it’s believed sleeping children can’t be lured away by wily fairies. Still, it’s hard to imagine easily falling asleep knowing your only protection is that your eyes are closed!
In my setting of the lullaby, rather than capitalizing on the sinister fairies lying in wait on the roof, I chose to focus on the love poured out by this mother as she shares an intimate moment with what I imagine is her first child.
Seoithín seo hó, mo stórín, mo leanbh.
Mo sheoid gan cealg, mo chuid den tsaol mhór.
Seoithín seo hó, is mór é an taithneamh,
Mo stórín ina leaba, a chodladh gan brón.
Hushaby, my treasure, my baby.
My jewel without deceit, my share of the big world.
Hushaby, it is the greatest sight,
My treasure in his bed, asleep without care.
Unlike most lullabies, the chorus of this tune has a “soaring” quality, naturally drawing out a crescendo (the opposite of what you’d want when lulling someone to sleep!). Rather than working against this natural tendency, I set the music so that the mother becomes so caught up in her joy she accidentally wakes the baby and then coaxes him back to sleep.
The third and closing tune, Beidh Aonach Amárach (There Will Be a Fair Tomorrow), is a “dandling” song. Rather than telling a story, dandling songs are meant to be simply entertaining to sing due to the sound or rhythm of the lyrics. These are often used to amuse or distract children (in the US, popular examples of dandling songs might be “Pat-a-cake” or “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”).
Appropriately, the text in this song is a back-and-forth disagreement between daughter and mother. The daughter wants to go to the fair where she intends to marry the town’s shoemaker, but her mother won’t allow it… and the daughter’s pestering ensues!
A mháithrín, an ligfidh tú chun aonaigh mé?
“A mhuirnín ó, ná héiligh é!”
Momma, will you let me go to the fair? (repeat 3 times)
“Darling, don’t ask again!”
In my setting, I wanted to highlight the playful quality of the lyrics and tune rather than presenting the entire text (which traditionally contains ten or more verses). I also interjected a bit of theater by adding awkward pauses and some mocking on the daughter’s part.
I crafted this entire song set with Emily’s voice in mind, and so I’ve dedicated it to her. Coaching her in the Irish Gaelic pronunciation as she painstakingly translated each syllable into IPA characters was great fun and a provided further encouragement for me to learn more about a language that has always fascinated me. Manitou Winds is honored to have her premiere this new work with us, adding her special signature to the performance!
Traveling Mercies, written by Manitou Winds founder Jason McKinney, was completed in January 2018. Composing the work became both an adventure and a learning process.
To tell you more, here’s Jason in his own words:
The idea to write a chamber work for organ first came to me in May 2017 as I sat at Central United Methodist Church, Traverse City, listening to a spectacular organ recital by Bradley Hunter Welch. The organ was not a favorite instrument of mine. I had tremendous respect for it (and for organists!), but I had never had a chance to fully understand or experience the instrument.
During the recital, as we were given a tour of the newly renovated organ, I began to connect to the sound. The whole building became an instrument, and we were sitting inside it! I physically felt the raw power of chords, dissonances crashing into consonance, the dynamic contrast from roar to purr. I was amazed how an organist combines timbres as though an entire orchestra were crammed into a single console. Wind players have to come up for air, string players have to reverse their bows, percussionists have to re-strike or keep rolling. But the organ is like a singing mountain, inhaling as it exhales, sending its sound wafting over us like a mist through a forest or cascading down on us like a waterfall.
The recital had a profound effect on me, musically. It was months before I told anyone, but I left knowing I would write a work for organ someday. Still, there were hurdles to face. For starters, I’d taken it upon myself to write a piece featuring an instrument I’d neither written for nor played before. Frankly, the instrument scares me. Hundreds and hundreds of pipes — some of them quite a bit taller than me!
Before I hoped to compose anything, I had to learn more about this singing mountain. Fortunately, I had the best organ Sherpa anyone could ask for: Thomas Bara! He loaned me reams of organ music and a copy of his album. He performed a personalized organ demonstration, explaining how various musical elements are performed and how all its manuals and stops come into play to create a unified sound. I also learned to speak its language — thumbing a glossary of strange words, discovering what the organ can and cannot do. As I pored over pages of organ repertoire, I realized I needed to understand what the individual organist brings to the music (yet more questions for Mr. Bara!).
The next hurdle was facing the blank page. My last original work was written in 2006 — more than a decade ago! When Manitou Winds came into being in 2014, I delved into my archives to dust off some of my older works, fashioning them into something better than the original. But it had been a long time since I’d faced a truly blank page.
I decided on a gradual approach by first facing smaller blank pages. I sketched musical ideas as they came to me, intuitively. Instead of forcing them into a specific context or direction, I let my mind wander, paying more attention to colors and textures. Once I’d amassed several ideas, I sat down at my piano to play through them, gradually adding harmonies but allowing even those to change whenever I felt them shifting.
Working in this freer style put my imagination into overdrive. Soon, a story about a long journey and a search for deeper meaning began to build itself into the piece taking shape. Before I knew it, I’d reached the final hurdle: sitting at the computer to orchestrate the piece for the entire ensemble (the big blank page)! By this point, I was now more eager than afraid.
The task was akin to inviting friends to a party. Composing and arranging for Manitou Winds, I’ve learned not only the unique qualities each instrument brings to the music, but also each musician’s boundaries. We do occasionally surprise one another, but I’ve come to know by heart what they love to play, what will challenge them, what they will begrudgingly play, and what they cannot play.
While orchestrating, I listened for each part to ring out. Whenever I couldn’t hear an instrument’s distinctive voice, I knew I was likely on the wrong track. I also made certain the organ was an equal part of the ensemble — neither a domineering presence nor merely accompaniment. I wanted it to seem as though Thomas was sitting in a chair next to us, taking part in the conversation rather than far away at a giant console.
Once finished, I realized this is a tone poem about wanderlust. Hearing the call of adventure, our narrator seeks excitement and wisdom from faraway places, dismissing the concerns and well-meaning advice of loved ones. Life abroad proves to be inspiring and overwhelming, leading our narrator on an introspective journey to find himself. Eventually, the wanderer returns home to find he is forever changed.
The title, Traveling Mercies, came to me while I was still sketching in my notebook. The title has a double meaning: it evokes the special blessing travelers request as protection before embarking on a long journey, and it reminds me of a line from my favorite psalm, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6). I’ve always taken comfort in the notion that mercy can be a traveling companion — following us if we allow it.
Rehearsing the new work has been tremendous fun for me. Hearing my friends learn their parts, gathering precision, weaving all the lines together… it’s not unlike watching loved ones open gifts and seeing their unfiltered reaction to what’s hidden beneath the wrappings. After weeks of rehearsing apart, finally getting to add Thomas and the organ to the full ensemble was simply magical.
Without Thomas Bara and the members of Manitou Winds, this piece would never have been written, and so I’ve dedicated the work to them. I hope you’ll join us for the premiere.
Commissioned by the American Guild of Organists, Sojourn premiered at their 2010 convention in Washington, D.C. We’re pleased to bring this powerful work to Northern Michigan, backed by the artistry of guest soloist Thomas Bara!
1) n. – a temporary stay;
2) v. – to stay as a temporary resident
Because it’s a word seldom heard outside the discussion of lengthy travel plans, sojourn is almost always defined as the act of traveling, or a word indicating a particularly long or epic journey. In reality, however, it’s simply the act of setting up a temporary home away from home.
As creative director of Manitou Winds, I often find myself speculating about the deeper meaning and sometimes hidden origins of the music we perform. Composers ultimately create their art through music and are seldom in the business of storytelling, so this leaves me with a lot of detective work. Beyond the notes and instructions on the page, beyond the audible details of musical form at the heart of a piece, many musicians want to find an even stronger connection to a piece that touches them. Sometimes we feel we haven’t mastered a piece until we’ve understood why it was written.
Fortunately, when you’re playing music written by living composers, you can get in touch with them and pick their brains for these insights into their work. And so, I e-mailed Craig Phillips recently and asked him for more details about Sojourn.
It was during a February 2008 interview with The Diapason, that Phillips announced he had been awarded a 2010 AGO New Music Commission. As you might imagine, such a prestigious commission carries with it weighty expectations and a deadline! During the interview, he confessed he’d already begun to muse about what he might write.
By the summer of 2009, roughly a year away from the premiere, the work was still in its planning stages. Phillips took a sabbatical from his duties as Director of Music at All Saints’ Church in Beverly Hills to seek a time of rest and renewal — mental space to focus on his composing. His travels landed him in southern France’s Occitanie region in the little medieval village of Alet-les-Bains where he’d arranged for an extended sojourn. Phillips says the sights and sounds of Alet-les-Bains were direct inspiration for Sojourn.
The village is a charming destination in the region. Hugging the eastern bank of the scenic Aude River, the heart of the hamlet is steeped in history from a tumultuous past, the remnants of which are some of its most popular features.
The ruins of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Alet draw history buffs and photographers alike. The cathedral was destroyed by the Huguenots in 1577 during the early years of the French Wars of Religion in which Catholics and Protestants waged a bloody battle for the throne. The ruins are a fascinating example of Gothic architecture.
The town also boasts one of France’s largest sources of mineral water. The water of Alet-les-Bains was first bottled and sold over 120 years ago. Located near a natural hot spring, the town was also famous for its thermal spa. These days, both the bottling and the bathing have ceased commercially, but visitors still find a way to enjoy the water.
Southern France is a summer haven for many, especially writers and artists who take advantage of the slower pace of village life, delicious but simple food, and inspiring scenery set amid easy solitude. When shutting out modern distractions and interruptions, it becomes easier to access the creative impulse.
“It turns out, that first summer was a turning point in my composition career,” Phillips mentioned. “I have returned to the same village each summer since for a time of concentrated composing. I find it to be a place of inspiration and renewal each year.”
Clearly he’s onto something! Sojourn, his 2010 commission, was received with critical acclaim. Then, in 2012 he received another AGO New Music Commission and was awarded the American Guild of Organists’ Distinguished Composer Award, putting him among the ranks of composers such as Stephen Paulus, Richard Proulx, and Virgil Thompson. To date, Phillips has published over 125 works.
While a summer’s sojourn in France may be out of the question for some of us, the value of respite and quiet remains universal and an integral part of tapping into one’s own creativity. We often think of a sojourn as a distant home away from home, but it can be as close as a favorite nook on the back porch or a quiet cove in the nearby woods or a spot at the water’s edge at your favorite beach. Sojourn can be a state of mind!
It’s true that organs are large, costly, and rarely found in the average home, but the reason organ students are a rare commodity is multifaceted. “For better or for worse, the organ is historically linked to the music of the church,” says Thomas. “Before the prevalence of amplified music, organ played a pivotal role in most congregational worship, so the pool of people exposed to the instrument was larger than it is today.”
With fewer people counting themselves as regular churchgoers, and some churches removing their organs or letting them fall into disrepair, the organ faces a shrinking opportunity to make an impression on budding musicians. Still, Thomas insists this is not an insurmountable challenge.
Thanks to the Internet and various forms of social media, it’s actually easier than ever for organists, composers, and would-be organ students to find one another. “Many of the young people attracted to organ, today, are drawn in by the dynamic body of work now posted online. They have instant access to the most dramatic organs and charismatic performers,” says Thomas. “I would say that finding dedicated students is still a challenge; I wouldn’t say the challenge is growing, but my students are coming from a different place than when I began teaching.”
Organists can sprout up almost anywhere, and Thomas is living proof of that! Although he came from a musical family where everyone loved singing, he grew up on a pick-your-own strawberry farm far away from his classically trained relatives. Life on the farm fostered a love of mechanical things and fed his penchant for problem-solving, as there was always something needing to be fixed. “Embarrassingly, my entry point into music was all of the organ’s gizmos and thing-a-ma-gigs,” admits Thomas. “I loved all of the keyboards and buttons… the ultimate mechanical marvel that also sounds cool!”
“The organ in the church I grew up in was in clear view of the congregation,” he remembers. “I always picked my seat so I could watch the organist during the service.” Not surprisingly, it was a church organist (John O’Brien) who eventually became Thomas’ first music teacher. Though he wanted to hop right on the organ bench, he was first required to learn piano.
He went on to study at Interlochen Arts Academy and then earned degrees from the University of Michigan and the Eastman School of Music, where he received the prestigious Performance Certificate and the first Harold Gleason Emerging Artist Award. Having performed as both an acclaimed soloist and accompanist in New York, Copenhagen, Cambridge, and London, Thomas has returned to Interlochen where he masterfully trains students, most of whom go on to attain impressive accolades and performance positions.
Asked if teaching organ might be different than teaching other instruments, Thomas says he believes all instruments require basically the same core values in both teachers and students. “The traits I work to model and champion for my students are passion and individuality,” he explains. “Passion drives us to work hard, to strive to learn as much as we can, and to do the dirty work even when we don’t feel like it. Passion motivates us to leave our comfort zones and to try again after we fail. Passion goes hand-in-hand with individuality, so I do not believe in doling out the ‘definitive’ interpretation of pieces. I want my students to invest themselves in the music and commit to their ideas.”
While the organ may not be as familiar to concert audiences (especially chamber music audiences) as it once was, organists know firsthand it is surprisingly versatile, adding color and richness no other instrument can provide. Thomas admits there are cringe-inducing misconceptions about the organ and what it’s like to play it. “Any guesses how many times I get asked to play ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ or ‘Come on Baby, Light My Fire’?” he laughs. “People often identify the organ with loud, spooky chords full of clamorous harmonics — that, or the Hammond B-3. Truth is, the organ is extremely versatile. It can cover everything from super-soft pianissimos to towering fortes. I love surprising people with how great the organ can be as a collaborative instrument.”
Great musicians can often discover new insights even within familiar repertoire as they return to those pieces over the years. When Thomas joins Manitou Winds next month, however, he’ll be premiering a brand-new work for organ and wind quintet written by Manitou Winds founder, Jason McKinney. There will be more on this collaboration in a future article.
Interpreting a piece of music with absolutely no performance history demands a creative spirit and an adventurous musicality. “More and more, I want to feel like I’m presenting a piece as a fellow composer — someone who understands intimately how a piece is put together,” he says. “With any music, new or old, I want to find the inherent genius in it and find a way to move the audience to experience it as I do.”
We’re confident the concert and premiere will be a splendid event thanks to Thomas’ masterful interpretation and his sensitive collaboration with the musicians of Manitou Winds. We hope you’ll join us to experience this celebration of spring and the wandering spirit.
Thank you to everyone who came to hear Manitou Winds’ 2017 Winter Songs & Carols program. Each year, we put together a unique collection of songs in various styles performed on many different instruments to inspire you to embrace the entire season of winter.
This year, our theme examined winter as a gateway to hope and renewal. We incorporated music and the spoken word to present an emotional but uplifting program — a message of hope to those who may be having trouble feeling jolly this season.
Our concert was performed Saturday, December 2nd, at Grace Episcopal Church, Traverse City and Friday, December 8th, at The Leelanau School, Glen Arbor. For both performances of this extra special program, we were honored to be joined by three very talented guests: Jan Ross, reader; Christy Burich, soprano; and Emily Curtin Culler, soprano.
To make the concert feel more intimate and personal, we chose not to list the musical selections in the program. Now that our performances are completed, we’re delighted to share all the details with you.
We’re so very excited to announce our December 2nd performance will be broadcast on Interlochen Public Radio on Christmas Day at 4:00pm (Eastern Standard Time). Follow this link to listen to the broadcast. Just follow the link on Christmas Day, and click the button at the top to listen live!
If you have any questions about this or any of the programs we present, please contact us or send us a message on Facebook. Or, just come up and talk to us after a performance! We hope to see you in one of our concerts in 2018!
— from There’s Still My Joy by Beth Nielsen Chapman
If you’ve attended a recent musical production at Traverse City’s Old Town Playhouse, or if you attended 2016’s Winter Songs & Carols concert, Christy Burich is probably already a familiar face and unmistakable voice. She puts so much energy and feeling behind her voice and onto the stage, it’s hard to forget the experience.
While working with Christy in rehearsals for last year’s concert, she mentioned she’d always wanted to create a concert or an album to help those who may be suffering through grief — a program about hope, healing, and renewal.
My eyes widened as I quickly told her it was a theme I’d considered for our 2017 Winter Songs & Carols concert. I’d been afraid to mention my idea to anyone because I had serious doubts about putting together such a program. I reasoned our audience expects a reflective but generally light-hearted evening of music. How would we explain a holiday concert that touches on grief and loss? Thankfully, after our chance conversation, I began a collaboration with Christy over the following year in which I learned about her journey through grief and healing. Eventually, I realized my fears about this project were very short-sighted.
In 2013, Christy’s husband Larry passed away after a year-long battle with a very rare form of cancer. “From the very night Larry passed, I began a conversation with him on paper,” Christy says. “I was emptying my heart of all the pain and sadness — my longing to see him, my pleading for forgiveness for my anger at his leaving. I would pause, listen, and just wait for words and answers to come.”
Christy says a lot of her healing came through journaling and painting. “Some say my life is an open book — I’ve never been able to contain my feelings,” she says. “But, I believe that’s what makes me an artist: the desire, the need to express my feelings through art, song, or monologue. For me, art is a way to fully acknowledge, honor, and release my emotions. When I’m vulnerable with an audience — big or small — I feel a sense of Oneness, that our souls are deeply connected.”
This year’s program was created by pairing writings from Christy’s personal journals with a carefully-curated program of music. Though the holiday season often asks those who are grieving to hide their feelings of emptiness and uncertainty, we’re hoping our unique program will invite everyone to the holiday table to explore the season of winter as a time of peace, healing, and renewal. I talked with Christy, recently, about her collaboration with Manitou Winds, for our 2017 Winter Songs & Carols program.
Being an artist and a vocalist, it makes sense you’d feel drawn to music as a means of expression and a way to explore your grief journey. Do you remember the moment when the idea of a concert like this started to take shape for you?
Not too long after Larry’s passing, I realized I had two choices: either live a full and vibrant life, or be swallowed up by grief simply waiting to die. I eventually chose to live fully. In part, my decision was inspired by my stepson who was just 13 years old when his father died. I realized if he could honor his father’s memory by consistently rising up, giving life his very best, then I could too! His determination to create something good from our loss is what inspired me.
In the deepest struggles of my journey, I was comforted by the writings of wise and inspired authors, and also through the personal stories of others who were taking part in grief support groups. Grateful for their support, I knew even early on I’d want to someday be that support for others. That’s when I began to have a vision of a healing concert.
I’ll never forget the moment when we were talking after rehearsal, last year, and we realized we’d both had this same idea about a concert to comfort and heal. Did it surprise you when I told you I’d been creating a holiday-themed concert?
I never imagined it would be during the holidays, but it all seems to be Divine timing! Larry and I were married just two days after Christmas — it was our favorite season! Since his passing, the holidays, our anniversary, and Larry’s birthday following New Year’s Day have always been hard to endure. The whole season of winter can be especially hard for those missing a loved one. While I hadn’t pictured it, I think that’s why this concert is happening during winter and the holidays.
Part of the program we’ve put together is a monologue taking you and the audience all the way back to the beginning of your grief journey: the night Larry passed away. When we discussed using these particular pieces of writing, I remember asking you if you’d be able to get through the performance.
I’ve still got friends and family wondering the same thing! I feel like rejoicing when I tell them my strength is coming from the lasting and loving connection I still have with Larry. I don’t feel alone in this; I am so grateful to God and the Angels for this very auspicious opportunity to perform and share.
You’ll be reliving a very personal, painful time in front of an audience — entering into that vulnerability you’ve mentioned earlier. What sort of message are you hoping will stick with those who attend?
For all of us, I want this concert be a time of remembrance and unity with our loved ones. I also want to show there is healing beyond grief and give assurance that Love Never Dies! I’ve learned through my journey that our relationships continue in spirit. The connections we share are still real although they have changed. Perhaps, in some ways, we become more intimately connected than before. Our loved ones are only a thought away. Wherever we go, they are there guiding, loving, and protecting us. Always.
Without giving any spoilers, what do you think will be your favorite part of the program?
There’s a song toward the end of the program that happens to be Larry’s favorite song. It carries a beautiful and encouraging message. I sang it to him many times when he was ill, and over the years it has shown up in my own life at different times, bringing an unexpected smile. I know I’m going to enjoy singing those words to him, again, and to our audience.
Collaborating with Christy for this year’s special program has been an honor and a treasured experience. We admire her bravery and strength in sharing this difficult journey with our audience, and we’re grateful our music can be a part of that experience. It has been a memorable experience for each of us. Along the way, there have been many moments during rehearsal when one or all of us have been choking back tears. Thankfully, just moments later we’ve also been brought to tears of laughter while gathered around the table sharing (embarrassing) stories and comfort foods.
As musicians, we are sometimes handed the burden and privilege of sharing music during difficult moments in people’s lives. Emotionally, that strain can be difficult to bear, but having music in those moments as a tangible means of expression can embolden us, strengthening us when words alone might fail. The message of our concert this December is one of hope and healing. We hope you can join us.