Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 16, 2011

A Celtic Christmas present

December days always seem to fill up quickly with decorating, shopping and parties. For our family, music is also a crucial part of the mix. In just one week, we attended a church choir program, Kansas State University's holiday choral concert, the K-State Orchestra's holiday performance and "A Celtic Tenors Christmas."

I enjoyed all of them, but the latter performance was by far the most moving for me. I had purchased six tickets last summer as soon as I heard the three Irish tenors were going to perform at K-State's McCain Auditorium.

The crowd seemed energized even before the show started, and when the men came out, audience members greeted them with enthusiastic applause.

Our seats were in the middle of Row A - actually the third row back since two rows had been set up in front of ours over the orchestra pit. We were close enough to see the tenors' twinkling eyes and boyish grins, but not so close we had to strain our necks looking up at the stage.

They introduced themselves - Matthew Gilsenan from near Kells, James Nelson from Sligo and Daryl Simpson from Omagh - and their musical director Colm Rogan from County Louth.

Perhaps part of the reason we enjoyed the program so much was because husband Art, our girls and I visited Ireland in summer 2008 and were somewhat familiar with their home places.

When Matthew asked if any of us knew about the Book of Kells, we nodded our heads. We saw the beautifully-illustrated 9th-century gospel manuscript inside Dublin's Trinity College library. Youngest daughter Katie even did a high school art project based on the book.

When Daryl spoke about Omagh, a city in Northern Ireland, we could picture it immediately. Omagh was the site of a car bombing that killed 29 people and injured more than 200 in August 1998. Ten years after the bombing, we were walking down the street where it occurred, looking for a place to have lunch.

Daryl said 20 years ago, the three men wouldn't have even talked to each other due to being from different religions, regions and countries. "The Troubles" - decades of violence in Northern Ireland - had pitted those who described themselves as Irish or Roman Catholic against those who identified themselves as British or Protestant.

But now, he said, the three can sing in harmony.

And what beautiful harmony it was.

The tenors performed a mixture of Irish folk songs, Christmas favorites, opera numbers and pop tunes, weaving in jokes, history lessons and different languages.

They sang the stanzas of "Silent Night" in English, Irish and German.

They did their own renditions of Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally," Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" and Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home."

They also performed the classic aria, "Nessun Dorma" - Latin for "none sleeps" - with audience participation.

When they said they were going to sing a song that people associate with Ireland but whose words were written by an Englishman, I knew they were talking about "Danny Boy." They said the auditorium's acoustics were so good they were going to put their microphones down and sing without them.

The audience became even more hushed. As they began, youngest daughter Katie said she didn't even have to look at me to know what was happening.

And she was right. I could feel the tears come. I've always loved the song - ever since I heard Joe Feeney sing it on "The Lawrence Welk Show." But it's also special to me because it was one of the first songs Katie sang at a solo contest when she was in junior high. Her sweet, clear voice nearly took my breath away.

The two hours slipped away quickly. The tenors' beautiful voices and Irish charm - well, they captivated us and provided an experience I won't soon forget. And with Christmas right around the corner, I suddenly had a few more suggestions for some music CDs someone could get me.

Upper left, Musical Director Colm Rogan, tenor Matthew Gilsenan, McCain Auditorium's Executive Director Todd Holmberg, and tenors Daryl Simpson and James Nelson; lower left, the main street in Omagh on our visit in 2008 just a short distance from where the bomb exploded ten years earlier; right, Katie working on a school art project based on the Book of Kells. A copy of a sheet from the book is at the lower left.

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