Irish music is among the most flexible in the world.
It absorbs and influences other styles with ease while retaining its identity: that recognizable danceability, that storytelling quality, that modal flurry of notes and ornamental vocal turns.
The ballad or lament forms, sung sometimes unaccompanied, tell the tales of lost love and heartbreak, of hunger and emigration, of joyful sorrow and death. The squared reels, sailor-influenced hornpipes, swinging jigs and imported polkas are meant to get you on your feet. For Irish music and dancing are inextricable.
In Charleston, Irish music has found a proponent in Na Fidleiri, a group of about 25 young fiddlers founded by Mary Taylor. The musicians mostly are ages 10-18. They have to audition to get in.
They work with Taylor, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Ireland and settled in Texas. She is married to choral conductor Rob Taylor, and the couple work under the auspices of the Taylor Music Group, a nonprofit that includes Na Fidleiri and the professional Taylor Festival Choir.
Na Fidleiri is performing on St. Patrick’s Day at the Circular Congregational Church.
The 4 p.m. concert will offer jigs, reels and airs, and feature flutist Susan Conant, guitarist Clelia Reardon, hammer dulcimer player Bart Saylor and members of the Taylor Festival Choir.
The group performs again at 4 p.m. April 28 at Grace Episcopal Church downtown, when it will preview a new program of music it will take on tour this summer.
Na Fidleiri will be in Ireland on June 30-July 10 to perform five concerts in Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Galway and Cobh. It will be the second time the fiddlers have traveled to the motherland; they were there in 2007. But this trip will be bigger and better, the Taylors said. The young musicians will be joined by the Dublin-born guitarist and Solas alumnus John Doyle.
The violin ensemble was born in 2000 after Mary Taylor, violin performance degree in hand and in charge of a studio full of fiddlers learning the famous Suzuki method, marveled at the popular success of Riverdance, a showcase of Celtic music and dancing.
She stared at step-dancer Michael Flatley and his colleagues on the international stage, then stared at her studio of young violinists, and an idea began to take shape in her mind. She had a stack of Irish tunes arranged for a violin ensemble. She already was using many of those arrangements in her Suzuki class. Why not take the best of the players and form a group?
The instruments typically used to make the traditional Irish sound (other than the voice) include the harp, guitar, pipes, banjo, flute, mandolin and fiddle, among others.
It is no coincidence that American bluegrass sounds so much like traditional Irish music, for the Appalachian Mountains were largely populated by Anglo-Celtic immigrants who brought their culture and common instruments with them.
The fiddle, in particular, has become an essential component of the Irish sound. Its ability to play languorous melodies and quick patterns makes it ideal for expressing both the nostalgic longing and energized merriment of Irish music.
Karin McQuade, a 17-year-old violinist and senior at the School of the Arts, where she’s majoring in strings, explained it this way: Irish music is rooted in ceremony and celebration. Whereas most classical music is presented as entertainment, Irish music is an expression of culture meant not only to entertain but to convey meaning, tell a story or accompany a ritual.
And the style of playing is different, she said.
“Classical music has a much more cleaner, broader sound, you use all parts of the bow,” Karin explained. “Whereas with fiddling you mostly use the upper part of the bow” to create that fast, rhythmic effect. The lower part of the bow is for digging into the strings and emphasizing the rhythmic drive of the music, she added.
Karin has a bit of Irish in her blood and looks forward to the summer tour, she said. She auditioned for Na Fidleiri four years ago, when she first arrived in Charleston, and quickly learned to memorize music, relying on a good ear.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I impressed her (Mary Taylor) with being the only new person to learn the entire book (of more than 20 Irish tunes) in the first year,” Karin said.
Mary Taylor grew up listening to classical and Celtic music and picked up the violin at an early age, she said. She is classically trained but always searching for new Irish songs to arrange for fiddles. She’s studied with renowned artists such as Liz Carroll, Martin Hayes and Liz Knowles.
Na Fidleiri has recorded two CDs, and there are plans to record another one live during a Piccolo Spoleto Festival concert, she said. The group will be part of the festival’s Celtic Arts Series.
Fifteen fiddlers and 15 singers from the choir are going on the Ireland tour, accompanied by various parent chaperons, the Taylors said.
Na Fidleiri is calling its Irish program “From the Lowcountry to the Old Country.” It’s inspired by something called “The Gathering Ireland 2013,” an effort by the Irish government to strengthen cultural ties to the rest of the world.
Rob Taylor said it’s a good way to share what has been inherited from the Emerald Isle.
“We’re reflecting back what we have taken from their culture,” he said.
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Na Fidleiri founder and director Mary Taylor works with Ann Sheridan, a 13-year-old member of the Celtic folk group.×
Na Fidleiri at its Christmas concert last year, performing at St. Matthew's Lutherna Church in downtown Charleston.×
Members of the professional Taylor Festival Choir joined Na Fidleiri for the 2012 Christmas concert at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church.×