VPR goes backstage with O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music

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(Host) Chances are that sometime on this St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll hear the music of Turlough O’Carolan, an 18th century Celtic harpist and composer. As part of the Burlington Irish Festival, Vermont Stage company is presenting “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music,” a play which examines the life and music of this traveling troubadour.

VPR’s Neal Charnoff takes us “Backstage.”

(Charnoff) The name Turlough O’Carolan may not be familiar to many Americans, but in Ireland, he’s famous enough to have had his picture on the 50-pound note. O’Carolan was a Catholic peasant, blinded by smallpox, who spent his life as a roving musician. He made his living by playing original compositions on his harp, traveling from town to town in his war-torn homeland.

In the play “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music,” the life and character of this troubadour is recounted by his best friend, Charles McCabe.

(McCabe) “Well I come up to the big house, but I held back for I don’t wish to meet the master or his guests, for I was a younger man then. I hadn’t often played for the gentry. So I made my way round to the garden and there he was, the man himself. He was sittin’ there alone, so he was, with a pipe and a bowl, and his fingers flyin’ over the strings of his lovely great harp. I just stood there gapin’ at him, for I was daunted by the man, though he was only a few years older than myself. But suddenly, he stops playing and cries out, ‘Well what do you think of that now?'”

(Charnoff) The two-act play was written by California-based harpist Patrick Ball, along with Stephen Glazer. The poet Charles McCabe is played by Vermont Stage veteran Ethan Bowen. He says the contrast between the two men made for a fascinating, if contentious, relationship.

(Bowen) “The great dynamic between him and Turlough is his challenge. You know, O’Carolan, how can you play for the English, these invaders into our country? And this is a really particularly raw period in history, in Irish history. The penal laws have just been enforced, almost 90% of Irish land has been taken away from Irish and given into English and Protestant hands. While O’Carolan is this wonderfully gregarious, always trying to find the light, the fullness of life.”

(Charnoff) Bowen says inhabiting these two roles allows him to express two classic Irish traits: McCabe’s love of language, and O’Carolan’s buoyant zest for life.

(Excerpt from the play – McCabe) “This is a dark time Mr. Carolan. Our songs should reflect that.”
(O’Carolan) “A dark time, is it McCabe? Have you ever been blind?”, says he.
(McCabe) “I have not, thanks be to God.”
(O’Carolan) “Well one day, God forbid, maybe you will be, and then you’ll find yourself in utter darkness. Oh you’ll fight and you’ll claw toward the light outside, but you’ll not reach it. In time man, you’ll realize that the only light to be found is that which you make for yourself. Which do you think is harder, McCabe? To make dark songs in the darkness? Hohhhh or to make brilliant ones that shine through the gloom? Ha ha ha ha ha!” (Music plays.) “So, will you take to the road with me, and go where I go?”

(Charnoff) Mark Nash is directing “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music.” He says O’Carolan’s optimism is one reason his music has endured for 300 years.

(Nash) “The big message of this play is that the artist has always played a pivotal role in dark times. In the case of the play, it was the case of O’Carolan bringing his play to the Irish when they were, it was an especially dark time in Irish history. And during these dark times that we’re in, I’m thrilled to be able to bring a piece of theater which is about the enlightening and vitalizing role of the artist.”

(Charnoff) O’Carolan’s compositions for harp are being performed on guitar by Stephen O’Kiernan of North Ferrisburgh. He was able to transcribe the music with help from Patrick Ball, who conceived the play. Kiernan says that to satisfy harp purists, he needed to stay true to how the songs were written, while satisfying the needs of the play.

(Kiernan) “The way that I got around it is, I use seven different tunings of the guitar in the course of this play, and capos and so on, trying to make the music be in service of what the dramatic intent of that moment is.”

(Charnoff) Kiernan says that Ball, who originally performed the play by himself, has adapted the play for musician and storyteller. According to Kiernan, it’s a production that Turlough O’Carolan would happily raise his glass to:

(Kiernan) “Because he was blind, because he had suffered, he wrote these melodies that absolutely touched the heart. I’ve loved learning this stuff because the melodies are exquisite, and there’s a reason that they endure 300 years later. They’re just sublime.”

(Charnoff) For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.

(Host) “O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music” opens at Burlington’s Flynnspace this Wednesday, March 19, and runs through March 30.

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