Arts & Culture

Northwest Repertory Singers join Magical Strings, percussion for all-Celtic concert

In the golden light of Mason United Methodist Church, drum and piano ring out an insistent war beat while a harp dances on top of fierce choral harmonies. The Northwest Repertory Singers are rehearsing for Saturday’s concert, and they’re singing about death.

Actually, it’s not all about death — some thwarted love and rebellion against the English are in there, too. The song is “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” and the arrangement is by Puyallup choir teacher Dan Davison. It’s just one in a program full of creative Celtic music arrangements that feature the choir alongside a percussionist, Irish dancers and the harp, dulcimer and whistles of iconic Olalla ensemble Magical Strings.

“I’ve been wanting to do a Celtic concert for years,” says NWRS director Paul Schultz about the genesis for “Celtic Celebration,” which will be this Saturday in Tacoma. “I’d also wanted to collaborate with Magical Strings, and when I was planning, I saw the proximity to St. Patrick’s Day. … Everything just worked out.”

The Olalla-based Magical Strings, led by Pam and Philip Boulding, have been performing authentic Celtic music for 40 years, centering on the soft Celtic harp, sweetly ringing hammered dulcimer and whistles. They’ll play with many of the choir’s pieces on Saturday, as well as playing two sets of their own, one accompanied by the Tara Academy Irish Dancers. Other musicians include local percussionist Becky Krebs and NWRS accompanist Margie Skreen on piano.

But it’s the singing that’s at the heart of the concert — and of most Celtic music. Schultz has found some arrangements of well-known and less-familiar tunes that break out of the usual patterns.

One such arrangement is the piece by Davison, who has taught choir at Ballou Junior High School for 35 years, sings professionally with Male Ensemble Northwest and composes regularly for choirs. Commissioned to write a piece for McNary High School in Salem, Oregon, he chose the popular Irish ballad “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” the sad tale of a soldier whose beloved dies in his arms from a gunshot just as he’s deciding to leave her and fight the English.

“It’s all about drama,” says Davison, who will be at the concert. “It’s a very sad love triangle between a man, the woman he loves and his country. … I wanted to portray that drama.”

Does that seem too intense a text for high-schoolers?

“Oh, no. High-schoolers know all about love triangles,” Davison said.

Other songs on the program include “The Wild Song,” “Siúil a Rúin” and the iconic “Danny Boy,” all arranged by Irish composer Michael McGlynn, as well as his fast-paced “Dúlamán,” which is sung in Gaelic. Other Irish tunes include “The Fiddler of Dooney” and “The Kerry Dance.” “Loch Lomond” is the lone Scottish work. The other Celtic nations are absent.

“The focus was on Irish music, for St. Patrick’s Day,” said Schultz, who has led his choir through many genres over14 years. “Getting into folk music has been very pleasant and rewarding, but still challenging.”