MSO Pops go Irish with fiddler Eileen Ivers

By - Mar 24th, 2012 05:00 pm
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Eileen Ivers and band. Luke Ratray photo courtesy of Iver’s website.

Rounding out the annual March celebrations of musical Irishness, the Milwaukee Symphony Pops presented its first night of “Celtic Celebration” on Friday. The Pops spotlighted the talents of the renowned, award-winning fiddler, Eileen Ivers.

The capable Jeff Tyzik, a frequent guest Pops conductor stood in for the ailing Marvin Hamlisch. The fully stocked symphony orchestra opened each half with arrangements of traditional tunes, ranging from Leroy Anderson’s sprightly take on “The Irish Washerwoman” to a particularly lugubrious Percy Grainger setting of “Londonderry Air” (aka “Danny Boy”). As always, the MSO sounded like the professionals they are, despite a few disagreements in tempo early on.

The evening belonged to Ivers, however. She brought along Tommy McDonnell (vocals and percussion), Buddy Connolly (button accordion and tin whistle), Greg Anderson (guitar) and Lindsey Horner (bass). Her joy in the music and her confidence in her own abilities are infectious. She rules the performance, whether bowing her way through moments of pathos or playfully cavorting across the stage among her fellow musicians.

As a nine-time winner of the all-Ireland fiddling championship, Ivers’ command of the four-bar traditional tunes is without question. She amps up this arsenal of melodies with a powerful musical imagination and a willingness to incorporate other traditions and tools. For example, “Blizzard Train,” inspired by Ralph Blizzard’s interpretation of a traditional Virginia bluegrass fiddle tune (which was derived from an earlier Irish tune) included a fascinating show of technical prowess as Ivers built up a digital accompaniment of samplings in layer after layer.

One of the great pleasures of watching Irish music is the interplay between the musicians. Ivers generously shared the spotlight. Her call-and-response duet with button-box accordionist Connelly was a standout, and the MSO’s Frank Almond was called out to play “straight man” to Ivers’ Celtic ornamentation in “Pachelbel’s Frolic,” a lively rendition of the familiar “Canon in D” that turned the familiar chestnut into a rousing, danceable crowd pleaser. Percussionist McDonally frequently stepped out from behind the drum kit

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Eileen Ivers. Clay Patrick McBride photo courtesy of Ivers’ website.

to lend his blues-influenced vocals to a few numbers and led the audience in a few sing-alongs as well. Special kudos go to the four dancers from Milwaukee’s Cashel Dennehy school of dance, who managed to successfully negotiate a very small square of stage space and even taught Jeff Tyzik a move or two.

“Celtic” programming like this, especially at this time of year, can veer dangerously into the “Oirish” zone, a showband-style condensation of culture into a misty-eyed product aimed at American audiences whose view of Irish life comes from films like The Quiet Man. While Ivers’ show does go down the checklist (Titanic references, an emigrant poem, toola-roolas), her application of the traditional into the non-traditional is well- executed. Imitating the ambience of a trad band in a snug is difficult to do when that band is backed by a full orchestra in a massive concert hall, but Eileen Ivers’ consummate musicianship, enthusiasm, and generous spirit still successfully evoke the friendliness, collaboration, passion, and welcome of a genuine Irish music experience.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

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