Scottish guitarist Tony McManus will be among the performers at this month's Rockport Celtic Festival.
Already one of the more intriguing and multifaceted live music offerings in the Greater Boston area, the third Rockport Celtic Festival will take place the weekend of August 19-21 at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, with an array of events that pull together seemingly disparate musical genres and styles – and readings of poetry and prose – to explore the ties between people and places, with a focus on Scandinavia.
Among the performers scheduled to appear are Scottish fiddle-cello duo Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas; the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (Kevin Henderson, Anders Hall and Olav Luksengård Mjelva), who play music from Shetland, Sweden and Norway; Irish/Americana duo The Murphy Beds (Jefferson Hamer and Eamon O’Leary); vocalist and flute/whistle player Hanz Araki, a member of Maine-based quartet The Press Gang; acclaimed Scots fingerstyle guitarist Tony McManus; and legendary Boston-area maritime singer David Coffin.
Also on hand will be the duo of Lily Henley and Duncan Wickel, whose collective interests cross several music domains; chamber music fusionists The Neave Trio (violinist Anna Williams, cellist Mikhail Veselov and pianist Eri Nakamura); and innovative clarinetist Doug Wieselman.
Helming the festival are artistic directors WGBH broadcaster Brian O’Donovan – the creator and guiding light of the “Celtic Sojourn” Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day stage shows – and Scottish harpist/vocalist Maeve Gilchrist, both of whom have an appreciation for festivals with a progressive artistic vision – and wanted to create a similar event in the Boston area.
“Events like the Kilkenny Arts Festival in Ireland offer a platform for tradition-distilled music with an emphasis on exploring connections with classical or jazz or other music, and feature specially commissioned works that showcase such collaborations,” explains Gilchrist. “We felt we could put together a festival that would appeal to the Celtic music audience here, but with a somewhat different angle – we’ve found that this audience has some pretty sophisticated tastes, and is receptive to new ideas. At the same time, we thought about how to cultivate and sustain a younger audience, one that is very interested in cross-genre events with expressions of multiple artistic and musical influences.
“So we’re playing the long game: We’d love to see the Rockport Celtic Festival continue to grow, and to be an event that involves high-quality artists across the board who seek to create high-quality presentations that fire the imagination and broaden appreciation of Celtic and other music.”
The 2022 festival’s spotlight on Scandinavian sounds reflects the interchange among artists from various music communities that has taken place in the past couple of decades, and their abiding interest in the common threads between their traditions, Gilchrist notes.
“Something about Scandinavian music definitely connects with me, being from Scotland; you think about the music from the north of Scotland, and particularly the Shetland Islands [birthplace of Nordic Fiddlers Bloc member Kevin Henderson], and you can hear a kind of beautiful bleakness that’s also present in Scandinavian music. There are other things shared between these cultures, like their relationship with the sea and its influence on people’s lives. A lot to explore, a lot to celebrate.”
The Friday opening concert, “Nordic Nights,” will set the tone for the festival, with a performance that includes Fraser and Haas, Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, Henley and Wickel, Wieselman, and Araki.
“You’ll hear reels and jigs associated with Scottish or Irish music, but also polskas and other elements of Scandinavian music,” says Gilchrist. “There’ll be Celtic fiddles and hardanger fiddles, so you’ll get to hear all these sounds together and separately. What’s really exciting is having Doug Wieselman as a kind of ‘wild card’ – he’s a big part of New York’s avant-garde scene, and he has played with [Irish fiddler] Martin Hayes, so we can’t wait to see what he’ll do with the other performers here.”
As an emcee, O’Donovan’s forte is not just introducing performers, but also chatting with them between songs or tune sets so as to give their music some background and context for the audience. He’ll hold a “Salon Session” with some of the festival artists at 11 a.m. on Saturday, the festival’s second day.
The Saturday night concert, “A Global Celebration of Strings,” will use stringed instruments (plucked, bowed, strummed) as the focal point in individual and collaborative pieces. “Global” is the key word here, as the musical scope will stretch well beyond the Nordic region to include not only Ireland and the UK but also the Sephardic Jewish tradition as well as classical styles.
For those who don’t mind staying up a bit late, a “Festival Club” will cap off both Friday and Saturday nights. These are a kind of hybrid session/performance, anything-can-happen-and-probably-will extravaganzas that will include not only the festival artists but special drop-in guests.
“The ‘festival club’ is something that became very popular in music festivals in the UK, Ireland, and elsewhere in Europe,” says Gilchrist. “There’s a lot of energy and spontaneity around, and it’s very infectious.”
As anyone who’s gone to the “Celtic Sojourn” Christmas or St. Patrick’s Day productions knows, O’Donovan is a big believer in bringing together music and the spoken word. Sunday’s noon event, “Words & Music: The Celtic Spirit,” will be a “spiritual celebration” that features poetry and prose of eminent writers, complemented by music from selected performers.
The Sunday evening finale will bring the festival perspective home, literally: “A Symphony of the Sea” is a memoir of Cape Ann, and its relationship to Atlantic maritime history, with Coffin serving as singer and narrator. The scope of the concert expands outward for a broad look at traditions, stories, and customs related to the ocean, through the spectrum of musical genres that include Irish seán-nos and sea shanties, but also classical interpretations and the Celtic instrumental traditions. Joining Coffin will be The Murphy Beds, Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (whose Anders Hall will have a featured role), Wieselman. and The Neave Trio.
“As we’ve done the past two festivals, once again we’re making a point of including a narrative of Rockport and the rest of Cape Ann, because it’s important to show how connected past and present are – and David Coffin is the perfect choice to take the lead in doing that,” says Gilchrist. “‘A Symphony of the Sea’ also will really demonstrate the wonderful possibilities that result from this format of collaborations and cross-genre performances, like David with The Murphy Beds, or The Neave Trio’s classical influences paired with Scandinavian music.
“After starting the festival in 2019, it was disappointing not to be able to come back the following year – because of Covid, obviously,” she adds. “But between 2021 and now 2022, it’s been joyful to bring together different musicians and ideas to reclaim that ‘lost year.’ We feel like we’ve only just begun to explore the festival’s potential.”
For information on the Rockport Celtic Festival, see rockportmusic.org/rockport-celtic-festival