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CONCERT REVIEW: Celtic Christmas Strings, Maire Ni Chathasaigh and Chris Newman, The Market House, Long Sutton

Harp and guitar were joined together in seasonal music matrimony for the final Lincolnshire Rural and Community Touring concert of the year in Long Sutton on Friday.

Irish harpist Maire Ni Chathasaigh, awarded her country's most prestigious music honour in 2001, and English acoustic guitarist Chris Newman played Celtic Christmas Strings at The Market House, Long Sutton.

The concert was a demonstration of skilled musicianship at its most innovative, combining a reworking of Christmas carols with a collection of bluegrass, swing jazz and folk compositions from the British Isles, Europe and the United States.

Chris Newman and Maire Ni Chathasaigh and Chris Newman. Photo by Con Kelleher. (6044981)
Chris Newman and Maire Ni Chathasaigh and Chris Newman. Photo by Con Kelleher. (6044981)

Familiar carols, including Away in a Manger, The Holly and the Ivy, O Come All Ye Faithful and I Saw Three Ships were played in their traditional formats, with Maire and Chris carefully adding their own individual arrangements to preserve some form of creative licence.

Another collection of songs were penned more recently, including Charlie Walker's Tell Her Lies and Feed Her Candy, Pheasant Feathers by Lancaster folk musician Andy Hornby and an emotional encore in Ginny's Waltz by Birmingham blues player Paul Buckley.

But what made this concert different were the helpful "stories behind the songs" that Maire and Chris took time to tell their audience.

Maire Ni Chathasaigh and Chris Newman. Photo by Simon Mayor. (6044983)
Maire Ni Chathasaigh and Chris Newman. Photo by Simon Mayor. (6044983)

This came into its own when Maire demonstrated her extensive knowledge of traditional Irish music before the pair played less familiar numbers, including Connemara (a coastal region of Western Ireland), Carolan's Concerto (by blind Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan) and Harps in Bloom by Maire herself.

Explaining their approach to having played, recorded and toured together for more than 30 years, Chris said: "The harp is a lovely instrument, but it's not the world's most sociable instrument.

"So we encourage the harp to leave its comfort zone."

Maire added: "When we perform as a duo, we have to allow the other person space.

"So we think a lot about the texture of our programme, including how to make a nice sound.

"As a duo, your own ego has to take a back seat because it's about using the instruments to make beautiful music."

Harpist Maire Ni Chathasaigh. Photo by Hilary James. (6050469)
Harpist Maire Ni Chathasaigh. Photo by Hilary James. (6050469)

Other highlights of Friday's concert where Chris's own swing jazz number, Wild Goose Chase, traditional Irish carol To That Night on Bethlehem and Bright Falls The Air, a piece composed by Chris and named by Maire.

After the concert, Maire said: "We've been to Lincolnshire many times, but this was our first time in Long Sutton.

"Celtic music is very melodic and really appeals to people, possibly because Ireland has a very distinctive and cultural history.

"Through language, literature and any other sort of artistic expression, the characteristics of any country are representative of the people.

"So in the same that a language preserves the people who speak it, when a language dies, a way of thinking dies with it.

"Irish music is a way of thinking, but it doesn't require words which is why it's very popular in countries where English isn't the spoken language."

Maire was awarded Irish music's most prestigious award, Traditional Musician of the Year (Gradam Cheoil TG4) in 2001 "for the excellence and pioneering force of her music, the remarkable growth she has brought to the music of the harp and for the positive influence she has had on the young generation of harpers".

She said: "It's not something you enter, it's decided that what you do is of cultural value and you're given Gradam Cheoil TG4 in the same way as an honour from the Queen.

"The award is of purely cultural value and it celebrates the contribution you've made to Irish music.

"It doesn't matter how famous you are, the award is a recognition by your peers which is why it's a very bid deal in Ireland."

Guitarist Chris Newman. Photo by Hilary James. (6050467)
Guitarist Chris Newman. Photo by Hilary James. (6050467)

Máire and Chris made their début as a duo at the 1987 Cambridge Folk Festival, going on tour to Australia the following year at the invitation of Prime Minister Bob Hawke to mark the country's bicentennial.

They have also recorded seven albums together, from The Living Wood (1988) through to Christmas Lights (2013).

Maire said: "When we first started playing together as a duo, the audience literally couldn't get their heads around the sound because we were the first to do it.

"When you do something new, people are very suspicious at first.

"But now audiences feel that the harp and guitar fit very well because we put a lot of effort into our arrangements."

The pair's visit to Long Sutton was the third in a five-part tour of the East Midlands that also included Ropsley, near Grantham, Chesterfield, Mansfield and Desford, near Leicester.

Maire said: "I hope that people have taken away joy and been able to walk out of our concerts with smiles on their faces.

"If you play from your heart, it's something that everybody responds to and the Irish harp offers an insight into my culture and my people's history.

"I also hope that we've moved people because the music means a lot to me and Chris so we want to put that across.

"If you're in front of people on stage, there's no trickery and the most important thing is that people leave our concerts with a sense of joy.

"Music is an international language and because it means a lot to me, I want to communicate that."

Review and interview by Winston Brown

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