A capacity crowd at the Matheson Theater experienced performance art of the highest caliber Saturday night. The concert was sold out and extra seats were added, but we still had to turn some people away. Those who bought tickets in advance were very happy to have done so!
The performance was nothing short of spectacular. A blend of music and oratory, falling somewhere between concert and theater, it spanned nearly the range of human feeling; from humor to tragedy, tenderness to rage, reality to mysticism, and more besides. The effects were powerful and exhilarating.
The performers were: Patrick Ball, oratory and wire-strung Celtic harp; Lisa Lynne, Celtic harp, Irish bouzouki, and mandolin; Aryeh Frankfurter, harp, cittern, and nyckelharpa. Essentially, Aryeh and Lisa played instrumental music and Patrick told stories, punctuated by intervals of ensemble playing. (Which is a little like saying, “Essentially, Michaelangelo’s David is a large male figure carved in marble.” Kind of an understatement!) The playing alone would be worth the admission, as the familiar melodies of Irish (and sometimes Scottish and even Breton) music become richly evocative in the complex and densely textured arrangements. Celtic harp and Swedish nyckelharpa (a kind of keyed fiddle with resonant strings) come together wonderfully in the opening tune, “The Arran Boat.”
Then Patrick begins to speak. It isn’t really accurate to say that Patrick “tells stories,” or even that he brings stories to life – it’s more that he brings you into the world of the story. It is a kind of magic. There were several moments where I was no longer simply watching a performance, but found myself actually experiencing the events Patrick was describing. Some of the passages are not even stories, in the usual sense; the opening bit, for example, is more a kind of oratory, interpreting the Song (or Challenge, or Boast) of Amergin, the Milesian Druid. An eyewitness description of a 16th century Irish feast, and what occurred when an ancient harper was asked to sing a particular song, turns from amusing to astonishing to spine-chilling. The piece de resistance, occupying the whole second half of the show, is the Ursula K. LeGuin story, Gwilan’s Harp; and if you can see this performed without being utterly caught up in emotion, get someone to check you for a pulse.
Lisa Lynne took a turn, relating the story of her evolution from a rock bass player to a Celtic folk harper; and when she described her experience playing harp for a child injured in the Columbine massacre, you could hear the entire audience holding their breath.
When I was not caught up in the spell, I was impressed by the craft. It sounds simple; you two play music, and I’ll tell a story. But the story and music each have their own rhythms, and to achieve the transportive effect – getting the audience to forget they were watching, and instead become part of the experience – means geting the timing, pitch, and intonations exactly right. It’s like harmony: the closer you get to the perfect notes, the more sublime the sound becomes. It is clear these three work hard at getting this right, even as it is also clear that they themselves become caught up in the spell they are weaving. It is also clear, from the abundant humour and easy grace, that they really enjoy doing this.
At the end, the audience leapt to their feet for a prolonged standing ovation, before the performers returned to their harps for one last ensemble set. Lisa invited everyone to come down to the stage and examine the harps, even play them, and many took her up on the offer. Eventually, reluctantly, people departed, perhaps aware that they had witnessed something truly special.