The symphonic chorus is going all-in on a celebration of Irish and Celtic culture to kick off its upcoming season.
They’ve taken the summer off to rest their voices and rehearse new material.
And they’ve even had the time to learn some Gaelic.
Key Chorale is coming back from its summer recess with a tribute to the old country that will bring an Irish flair to the Church of the Palms.
The show — entitled "Equinox: A Celtic Celebration" — is meant to kick off the choral group’s new season and also to pay tribute to the changing of summer to fall, and Key Chorale has enlisted tenor Brad Diamond and Foley’s All-Star Irish Band to make it more authentic.
“All the five band members are all specialists in their instruments and in this kind of music,” says Joseph Caulkins, artistic director of Key Chorale. “We pulled together the best people from all over the country. When you read the bios of these guys, they're amazing at all the things they're doing. We wanted to do everything as authentic as possible, and having these five guys who have played it their whole lives is going to make a big difference in the quality of the performance.”
The show, which takes place on Sept. 24, will include songs like “Danny Boy” and “Wild Mountain Thyme” that have moved into the world music vernacular
But Caulkins says it’s also important to treat the audience to Irish music they haven’t heard yet.
For instance, if you make it out to "Equinox," you will hear unusual instruments like the hammered dulcimer and the uilleann pipes played by master craftsmen. And then, of course, there’s the chorus of singers dozens strong that Caulkins leads from the podium.
They've never done a show like this, but that's part of what makes it exciting.
“Last year we did a show that was all gospel music and it was a nice way to kick off the season," says Caulkins. "I thought, ‘What would be another thing that would appeal to a lot of people?’ The timeless melodies and infectious rhythms of Irish and Celtic music seem to be a good fit.”
While he may not have realized it at the time, taking on this music means taking on a new language. Caulkins, interestingly, says that's not necessarily difficult for Key Chorale.
“We’ve probably sung in all the languages except Gaelic. Gaelic and Russian are the two outliers,” he says. “I think the hardest thing is that when you look at a Gaelic word it looks nothing like it sounds. Fortunately for us, Brad Diamond, our tenor soloist that’s coming down, he has so much Gaelic to spit out. We just have a little bit of a chorus to do.”
Diamond, a professor of voice at Samford University, won’t be the only distinguished guest.
Dylan Foley, a four-time All-Ireland Fiddle Champion, will be leading the supporting band, which will also feature guitarist Brian Hanlon, hammered dulcimer player Stephen Humphries, flutist Sean Cunningham and uillleann pipe artist Eamonn Dillon.
Foley, 30 years old, was raised in upstate New York. He says he started playing the fiddle at age 8 and was inspired by virtuoso Jay Ungar, and he was first crowned an Irish fiddle champion at age 12. He later won in another two youth brackets and was crowned adult champion in 2014.
“They call me The Big Yank,” he says of his following in Ireland. “I’m 6-foot-7, so it’s hard to blend in over there. I’ve gotten out there and I’ve played a lot and people know my name. They know what I look like, but I’ve got a beard now. I’m no longer 12, you know?”
Foley, based just outside Nashville, Tennessee, is thrilled to be working with this assemblage of musicians. He’s been in Nashville for about a year, and he plays with Dillon every week. Cunningham pops in from time to time, and Hanlon runs his own recording studio in Nashville.
They haven’t played all together that often, says Foley, but when they do, it’s instant chemistry.
“It’s very natural to us. We all have the same repertoire,” he says. “Once we get down there and have our first rehearsal, it's going to be really cool to see how it all pieces together.”
Foley also says he’s never played with a choral group this size before. So the mix of sounds should be new for everyone; not just the audience, but also the musicians themselves.
For Caulkins, the hard work comes in blending all those talents together.
How do you manage to rehearse when your performers are split between multiple states?
Caulkins says Key Chorale will be singing together for the first time since May, but the singers have all had access to a video guide of the material to allow them to practice.
Key Chorale rehearsed for the first time in person on Sept. 6, and they won’t meet with the Irish All-Stars and their guest tenor until the actual week of the show. Caulkins calls that kind of preparation a “grand experiment,” and he says the final days of rehearsal will be invigorating.
“When you're rehearsing this online you don't get the sound of all the voices coming together,” he says. “It's always an exciting time. It's fun to see where they are with learning their parts. Then we put the magic to it; we talk about phrasing and articulation and musicality. we're going to just do the most fun part of music, the details which make it really enjoyable.”
The show will also have an appropriate opening act. Blue Skye Pipes and Drums, an all-female pipe and Celtic performance band, will play for a half-hour before the main program.
Caulkins, looking down the line, is excited for another season of performances, and he says that visitors to Key Chorale’s website should have the opportunity to watch shows remotely. But he’s hoping, at this point, that people are ready to come hear music in person.
“We were mostly in person pretty much all last season, but everybody comes back to the concert hall in their own time,” he says. “This whole season really is about just bringing our whole audience back and letting them enjoy live music again. That audience is coming back but they're not coming back like a light switch. They come back as they feel ready.”
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