Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Irish Music Review: Altan Encounters

Altan is a fantastic group with an incredible selection of tunes and songs, ranging from traditional Irish tunes and Gaelic songs to their more recently added bluegrass tunes. In my travels I have had many "Altan Encounters". It is always a joy to play tunes with such legendary musicians.

I first met Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, the fiddler and vocalist for the group, when I was ten at the Dublin Ohio Irish Festival. She let me try her Hardanger fiddle, a violin with five strings on the top and four on the bottom.

Image of hardanger fiddle, Haley Richardson, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh,

When you play the strings on the top, they set in motion vibrations that cause the strings on the bottom to ring - so it almost sounds like more than one violin playing. I played a reel on it. At the time, I had been used to a 3/4 size fiddle with four strings, so playing a full size fiddle with five strings on the top and four strings on the bottom was a very different experience. I think for accompanying vocalists, the Hardanger fiddle sounds nice because of its echoing tone. Mairéad was super friendly and it was a memorable moment to meet and interact with this legend in Irish music.

In the summer of 2014, two years after first meeting her, I went to an Altan concert while attending Studio2Stage and met up with Mairéad and the band afterwards. She told mom and me to let her know when they were playing in our area again so we could get together and play some tunes. She also invited me to play with Altan alongside Dervish at the Sligo Live event on TG4, during the Fleadh Cheoil 2014 in Sligo.

Here's a little video of the Sligo Live performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqXQhEFqLRI

Altan, Dervish, Haley Richardson
This past spring, we let Mairéad know there was a local show coming up and she invited me to perform a few tunes with the band. We joined them for dinner before the show, and I met Mairéad's daughter, Nia, who is twelve. After dinner, we went to the venue and I had a good time trading a few tunes with Nia before showtime. I loved the whole concert, but especially enjoyed the songs in Gaelic.

Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Haley Richardson

For the finale, I joined them in playing a bluegrass-Irish mix tune, which was different from what I'm used to, but I enjoyed experimenting with a new style of music. The energy from everyone interacting on-stage made everything especially enjoyable.

My recent trip to Ireland for the Fiddler of Dooney competition brought me to Donegal and another encounter with Altan friends. I spent a few days of the trip with Mairéad, sharing tunes and laughs by the fire.

I have loads of fun whenever I have "Altan Encounters". I hope to play a few tunes with them again, sometime soon!


Monday, November 23, 2015

Adventures in Ireland

For my mom and me, competitions are always just an excuse to travel to Ireland. We always make the most of the trip by visiting friends and seeing sights. This year’s excuse was the Fiddler of Dooney in Sligo. 

The first day consisted mainly of travel, and lots of it. Mom and I arrived in Dublin early on Thursday morning and visited Taste Food Company & Cafe, our favorite place to eat, what I think are, the best raspberry scones. Afterwards, we went to the airport to catch a flight to Donegal, where we stayed with our friends Mairead and Nia. Mairead contributes fiddle and vocals to a very well renowned group of Irish musicians called Altan

Pre-Flight Selfie
We met her back in 2008 at the Dublin Ohio Irish Festival where she performed with Tea with The Maggies. We saw her again this past winter with her daughter Nia, when Altan performed at a local theater in the Penn State area. When Mairead heard we would be visiting Ireland, she invited us to spend some time in Donegal with herself and Nia, plus their dog and cat, of course. 

Mairead surprised us when we met her at the Dublin Airport before our flight. We didn’t expect to see her until we arrived in Donegal. She had just been interviewed at a radio station with fellow band member, Ciaran Curran, in Dublin. We all flew back together in a tiny puddle-jumper plane to Donegal. When we arrived at Mairead’s house, we were greeted by Seog, the cat, and Blonde, the dog. We drank some tea and talked for a while before collecting Nia from school. For the remainder of the afternoon, we enjoyed vegetable soup, visited Granny, Mairead’s mom, and caught up on sleep. 

The view from Mairead's kitchen.
Despite Google Maps not being very helpful and mom having to quickly teach me how to read a map the old-fashioned way, we made it to Sligo the next day. We stayed with Catherine and Charlie, two wonderful hosts found through one of the organizers of the Sligo Live event, being held along with the Fiddler of Dooney. We hadn’t met our hosts until the day we were staying with them. Two of their sons are members of a great trad-fusion band named Moxie. We met them years ago in County Cavan where we enjoyed playing a few tunes together. 

Saturday was the day of the competition. I began the day by warming up my fingers with my competition tunes, The Cuckoo hornpipe, Elizabeth Cullin which is a jig composed by Billy McComiskey, a fantastic accordion player, and a reel named Lord Gordons, learned from a recording of one of my favorite fiddlers, Michael Coleman. 

When we arrived at the church where the competition was held, I played through my tunes again. Once the competition started, I listened as the other competitors played their tunes. Each competitor was absolutely great and had a unique style. I loved listening to tunes I hadn’t yet heard, and some I already knew, but played in a different style with contrasting variations. In total, there were sixteen competitors including myself--the only American on a roster filled with Irish fiddlers. 

The competition was stiff, indeed. It lasted for two to three hours and I played towards the end. Once I left the stage, I knew I played my personal best. But, in competitions, you never know what the judges are looking for. Your opinion of your personal best could be someone else’s opinion thinking you could add more variations, slurs, phrasing, etc. to the tune. I never go into a competition expecting or not expecting to win, because it’s not up to me, even when I play my best. It’s all up to the judges. 

So, when my name was called to take the first place trophy in the Junior category, I was thrilled! The second and third placers, Blaithine Kennedy and Ademar O’Connor, each played stunning versions of lovely tunes. I had a chance to play a couple of those tunes later that day at a pub in town called Foley’s with Blaithine. Senan Moran, last year’s winner of the Junior age group, and a friend of mine whom I’ve met with several times at past All-Ireland Fleadhs, joined us.

Fiddler of Dooney Trophy

On Sunday night, Mairead was in Sligo after her travels in London with the band. We ate dinner together, then went to the Hawk’s Well Theater to watch Altan perform. The show was brilliant, filled with fabulous songs and tunes from their new CD, The Widening Gyre. At the end of the second half, Sarah O’Gorman, the winner of the Fiddler of Dooney’s senior division, and myself, joined the group on stage to play two sets of reels. It was so much fun to perform with the band again. There is always great energy on stage with them. 

Hawks Well Theatre Altan Concert

After the show, Mairead, Ciaran, mom, and I traveled two hours back to Donegal where we spent a few more days with Mairead, Nia, and their friend Jillian. Over the next few days, we enjoyed attending sessions, walking on the local beaches, visiting the local radio, and having a s’mores party.

Irish music pub session

RTE Radio, Donegal Ireland

In the boot!
Haley Richardson RTE Radio, Donegal Ireland

Mom and I said a very sad goodbye to our friends in Donegal. We traveled to Westport for a session at Matt Molloy’s Pub, where I was able to meet new musicians and play loads of tunes until the early hours of the morning. Then, we spent a few days in Clare with our friend Manus McGuire and his wife Jenni. They are lovely friends and fantastic hosts. I enjoyed sessioning at a local pub with Manus, Ged Foley, and several young musicians from the area. We toured the University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy where I met Niall Keegan, a wonderful man who informed me of the program UL offers for Irish music studies. 

Matt Molloy's Pub, Westport Ireland
What a lovely trash can!
Coral Beach, Galway Ireland
The Coral Beach

Manus McGuire, Haley Richardson

Our last stop of the trip was Dublin. I was very fortunate to have been able to meet up with a few friends from a camp I attended this past summer, Studio2Stage. Mom and I met Shannon, Michelle, and Siobhan at Butler’s Chocolate Café on Wicklow Street, where we conversed over some delicious hot chocolate and chocolate truffles. 

Unfortunately, we had to make our way back home the next day. It was sad to leave, but we had a truly amazing time in Ireland, sharing memories and adventures with some of our greatest friends. I hope to do it again in the near future.