Quills Quotes & Notes: Articles and Stories by Rosemary Phillips


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The Celtic Tenors


Perfect Harmony - An interview with James Nelson (February 2012)
The Celtic Tenors - A Wee Review, Rosemary's style
Links - To more information, formal biographies, web site, recordings and videos

INTRO: This interview article with The Celtic Tenors, the most successful classical crossover artists ever to emerge from Ireland, was originally written in preparation for their concert at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo, British Columbia, on Thursday, March 22; a fundraiser for the The Vancouver Island Symphony. I was unable to attend the concert in Nanaimo but I did see the one in Cranbrook, BC on Tuesday, March 27, and have written a Wee Review that follows.

The Celtic Tenors
The Celtic Tenors
Matthew Gilsenen, Daryl Simpson, James Nelson

Perfect Harmony!

An interview article with James Nelson of The Celtic Tenors
By Rosemary Phillips, 2012

Put together three brilliant tenor voices with natural Irish brogue, singing spine-tingling classical, folk, Irish, Gaelic and pop favourites in stacked three-part harmonies, then mix them up with quick witted banter and you have The Celtic Tenors. The charismatic, globe-trotting Celtic Tenors bring with them a bit of Ireland as they take to the Port Theatre stage with their uplifting show, on Thursday, March 22, and help Vancouver Island celebrate St. Patrick and everything Irish - in perfect harmony!

Meanwhile, on a Thursday in February, James Nelson, a member of The Celtic Tenors since 1995, was caught for a chat between sound checks for a sold-out charity concert in a church outside Dublin. “It’s a rare thing for me to sing solo, but I happened to be free tonight. On Saturday we are all performing for a concert in my late mother’s birthplace. She came from County Down in Northern Ireland and my father from the south. When they married there was harmony. And it was my mother taught me about harmony in music and singing. She was my biggest inspiration.”

Working and singing together in harmony
And what harmony! Three classically-trained Irish tenor voices, Matthew Gilsenan (the more pop style), James (the more operatic), and Daryl Simpson (the go-to-guy for the high notes), melding together not just in their music but in their relationship with each other and with the audience – all with rollicking good humour. They have recorded eight albums, performed around the world, been seen on TV (including a PBS special) across the USA, Canada and Europe, and sung for world leaders, while pioneering a new style of ‘cool’ never before seen as they continue to break the traditional tenor mould.

The Celtic Tenors
The Celtic Tenors
Photo by Barry McCall

“It has been said that the Celtic Tenors do to Irish tenor singing what River Dance has done to Irish dance – bringing it to the 21st Century. We were the first cross-over tenor act from Ireland and the only one that’s still together. We put that down to the fact that we were created not by a TV program or for fame but because we love music – and harmony.”

James, an ABBA and Meatloaf fan, is a lover of choral music. “I do most of the vocal arrangements and the others tweak around the notes. In Nanaimo we will be performing songs from our new album ‘Feels Like Home’, tenor standards like Nessum Dorma and Celtic Tenor favourites like Going Home, Remember Me, Red-Haired Mary, Westering Home, Danny Boy and many others.”

At this time in their career ‘home’ is where the heart is, on the road. “I bought my house in 2004 and I’ve been there only five months.” But being on the road is not just about concert touring. “When we aren’t singing we are busy with other commitments, like recordings, filming ‘Songs of Praise’ for BBC and last week a Titanic special singing Remember Me in the building in Belfast where the Titanic was designed.”

The Celtic Tenors
The Celtic Tenors
Daryl Simpson, Matthew Gilsenen, James Nelson

Harmony for Humanity
And the Celtic Tenors believe in harmony for humanity. “Years ago we wouldn’t have been on stage together. I’m Southern Irish Protestant from Sligo, Daryl is from Omagh in Northern Ireland, and Matthew is an Irish Catholic from County Meath. We each have different interests. Daryl set up the Omagh Community Youth Choir after the biggest single bombing atrocity in Northern Ireland, bringing Catholics and Protestants to sing together, promoting peace through music.”

James has his own project. “I’ve been going to Kenya once or twice a year to help raise funds for housing for children orphaned by AIDS. Aside from being part of the building team, building schools and accommodation, I teach music and do solo performances with the children but at the end of a verse I always look to the side for Daryl and Matthew. I’ve also done a CD with the children, some of whom have been child prostitutes or victims of machete massacres and are now going to high school and university. It’s humbling in the extreme.

“This has taught me to re-evaluate lyrics, like Bare Necessities. The song takes on whole new meaning. And Top of the World by the Carpenters. When asking the children why they are on top of the world, they reply, ‘I’m alive.’ Some of the children singAmazing Grace with their eyes closed. I get very emotional and have to leave the room – and cry. Lyrics are very important to me – every song has hidden meaning.”

The love of singing
James then spoke of his own childhood and love of singing. “At the age of three I sang a solo in a church. I cracked on a high note and got cold feet for singing. Instead I learned piano. Then while singing in a school choir a music teacher told me I was too loud. That also gave me a bad feeling. But by age 14, I started singing again, and later while studying for my bachelor degree in music I was asked to take a lead role in a rock opera. I was told I had a good voice but needed lessons. I went to a summer singing school in London, took private lessons from some incredible music teachers, and began an opera career in London. Eight years later in 1995 I was invited to do a one-off tribute concert to the Three Tenors as a member of the Three Irish Tenors. In 1999 we were asked to do 130 shows in Dublin (incredible for building stamina). Someone from EMI saw us and after an audition, EMI signed us up in 2000 for a record deal. It was then we became the Celtic Tenors.”

The Celtic Tenors

A Wee Review - Rosemary's style
What an incredible experience - one I will not forget! I had the opportunity to travel to Cranbrook, in British Columbia, to catch The Celtic Tenors in action. Avalanche control on the Kootenay Pass (Salmo-Creston Summit) was over by early morning but the fresh snow and slush made driving slow and careful. I’m not the best winter driver, so I was immensely relieved to arrive in Cranbrook safely, check into the Elizabeth Lake Lodge, make supper and prepare for the concert.

The Key Theatre was bursting with an excited and boisterous audience. The stage was set simply; three microphones, the grand piano, and a guitar. Silence, then introductions, and first on stage came musical director and pianist Colm Rogan, followed by Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson and Daryl Simpson. They presented a brilliant and entertaining program that featured popular and classical tunes interspersed with Celtic songs from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Classically trained voices, each distinctly different and unique when highlighted individually, blended together in perfect harmony and with such feeling. (I didn't take my note pad so I don't remember the titles of all the songs - besides, I was having too much of a good time and wasn't thinking of details!)

Between songs the four bantered between each other and with the audience. It was all so natural. Whereas some lines may have been scripted, the rest seemed totally in the moment, impulsive, unrehearsed, without pretense; humour with heart and soul. There were stories about the music, their lives, travels, and concerts on this recent Canadian tour. They had just driven from Saskatchewan by car and threw out jokes about the flat prairies while expressing their joy at seeing the great Canadian Rockies, visible from Alberta, and of course, seen anywhere in Cranbrook, a city surrounded by mountains. Their spontaneity was brilliant.

While their discourse was enchanting, I was there to hear The Celtic Tenors sing. To me the show was about the music, their voices, the songs, the incredible harmonies, Colm’s tickling of the ivories, Daryl’s guitar playing, and their heart-felt musical relationship between the members of the group and with the audience. At one point James, limping somewhat from a knee ailment, hobbled down into the audience with a huge red rose tucked behind his back, a big grin on his face, and sat beside an unsuspecting elderly lady, and sang to her. Later in the program, Matthew and Daryl had their turn and did likewise.

All the promotional material I had read before-hand was right on the mark. Believe it! The Celtic Tenors are sensitive, caring, and generous with their talents. They are seasoned performers, professionals, and yet they are the chap next door. And they show gratitude. I was completely surprised when, as Colm moved to pick up the guitar, James went over to the grand piano and dedicated a song to me as a thank you for the writing I had done for their concert in Nanaimo. The four performed ‘Wild Mountainside’, a very popular Scottish song written by John Douglas. I was brought to tears, not just for their gratitude but also for the amazing presentation of the song, the pure harmony, and the fact that coincidentally it is one of my own Scottish favourites. How did they know?

The concert closed with joyful and hilarious audience participation in ‘Nessum Dorma’; nothing like getting us common folk into joining in with the die-hard classics. Putting aside classical snobbery – this was FUN!

Music moves me, and their choice for the evening, mostly from their latest album ‘Feels Like Home’, definitely touched me deeply. I went from tears of laughter to tears of deep emotion, and as a result, removed what little make-up I had applied for the evening. In fact, their performances had touched all the audiences on this North American tour to the point they had no CDs left for folks to take home as a memento. “No matter,” the Tenors commented, “we will be in the lobby after the show to meet with everyone.” True to their word, after the standing ovations and a riotous encore, The Celtic Tenors headed to the lobby, stood talking with anyone who came to them, signed programs and in general, shared who they really are – wonderful human beings - doing what they love to do - and it shows!

If you have the opportunity to take in a Celtic Tenor concert – DO! - For the music, the brilliant tenor voices, the choice of songs, the harmony, for a touch of the Irish, laughter and warm fuzzy feelings of love.
Thank you James, Matthew, Daryl and Colm!

Links - To more information, formal bio and web site
For the Celtic Tenors' formal biography and more information visit The Celtic Tenor's web site.
Follow this link to Spotlight with QQandN for a news release about The Celtic Tenors.

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Copyright Rosemary Phillips, Quills Quotes & Notes Enterprises, 2013
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