By Emily J Weitz
More than a decade ago, at a castle in Dublin, there was a group of men who sang together every night for a hundred nights. They didn’t know that what would form from those first inspired performances would be a trio that toured the world, but the Celtic Tenors have since traveled from China to America and back to Ireland, drawing crowds everywhere they go.
As three strong male voices, Matthew Gilsenan, Daryl Simpson and James Nelson worked tirelessly on their harmonies. In one show, they could go from singing Shenandoah, with just their three distinct voices resonating through the space, to joining an orchestra of 75 instruments.
“We use a grand piano and a guitar as our standard accompaniment,” explains Daryl Simpson, one of the Celtic Tenors. “But then we just toured China with a 75 piece symphony orchestra. We’ve worked incredibly hard over the years to provide a little moment in the show where people can really relax and take their thoughts away to somewhere else.”
The Celtic Tenors are young, and they have a flare about them that separates them from some big tenor trio groups of the past. But at the same time, they’re performing songs that are hundreds of years old, and they are connected to a tradition that cannot be extricated.
“You want to honor the traditions, but you want to do your own thing with it and speak with your own voice,” says Simpson. “That’s always a challenge. We workshop songs, try different things, different arrangements.”
The Celtic Tenors do many of their own arrangements, and they’re usually put together by member James Nelson. While the arrangements reflect the modern Ireland in which they live today, they also honor their deep roots.
“We sing in Irish, or Gaelic, and that’s an important part of what we do,” says Simpson. “It brings that Celtic spirit through in the musical sense, because it’s an ancient language. That’s been important to cherish and hold onto.”
But the Celtic Tenors honor more than their own heritage. They sing in three different forms of Gaelic, as well as Spanish, French, Dutch, Mandarin, and the list goes on. They sing traditional Irish songs, and then they’ll draw from other genres like folk, classical, opera, and pop. That ability to cross through genres is something Simpson learned from his mentor, Nicolai Gedda.
“He performed at the Met for 27 years,” says Simpson, “and I had the privilege of taking singing lessons with him for a few years. I learned quite a lot about how to approach different styles of music. He didn’t distinguish between folk and opera. He treated them all as great pieces of music, and that was an important lesson for me.”
As the Celtic Tenors nimbly move from one genre to the next, it keeps the audience on their toes. While they will be focused entirely on the vocals for some songs, they use their instrumental skills on others.
“I play the piano and guitar,” says Simpson, “and James plays the piano. During the show, I play eight or nine songs on the guitar. James plays his solo piece at the piano. We like to mix things up a bit, give variety for people.”
This variety means that, at their best, The Celtic Tenors will be drawing out a spectrum of reactions from the audience, from laughing to crying to dancing. This weekend, they will come to Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center to celebrate St Patrick’s Day through music. Their newest CD, Feels Like Home, came out this time last year, and they’ll be playing a bunch of songs from that album as well as some old favorites.
“We’re very happy to be in Westhampton on St Patrick’s Day,” says Simpson. “We encourage people to come along. We’ll try to give people an emotional journey. There’s no point in coming to live music if you’re not affected by it.”