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Celtic Woman Brings New "Voices of Angels" Show to Hammons Hall

(Photo courtesy Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts)

Coming next week to the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts: the multi-platinum international music sensation Celtic Woman will present their new national touring show "Voices of Angels", Thursday June 15 at 7:00pm.  "Voices of Angels" showcases the voices of Susan McFadden, Máiréad Carlin, Éabha McMahon and introduces their newest member, Celtic violinist Tara McNeill, accompanied by a group of equally talented musicians and dancers whose skill and high energy bring a fresh fusion to centuries of musical and cultural tradition. Featuring many songs from the forthcoming "Voices of Angels" album, this live concert experience features all new stage designs, stunning wardrobes and choreography, and magnificent arrangements of timeless Irish traditional and contemporary standards in the group’s award-winning signature style.  Tara McNeill was out on the West Coast when she called in to the KSMU studios last week to talk to me. 

I asked her first about her musical background. “I was very lucky that I had three siblings who all played music,” she said in her utterly charming Irish accent (Northern Irish, I should say, as she is a native of Antrim, Northern Ireland). “One of my brothers played the cello, the other one played the piano, and my sister was a violinist and singer.  So we went through school together—we would have been in the orchestras together, in choirs together.”  And at Christmastime they would play chamber music around the house. “It was lovely being surrounded by that. For me especially, as the youngest, group up I was always surrounded by music. There was always something to aspire to.”

McNeill is a fully-trained classical violinist.  She gave the Irish premiere of the Violin Concerto by respected British composer Gerald Finzi in 2013. “I was so happy to discover this (work), actually.  I absolutely adore a lot of the vocal works of Finzi.  Also, my brother had played the Eclogue (for string orchestra by Finzi), and I played in the orchestra for that, and I just love his music. I didn’t know there was a violin concerto.  [I didn’t either, as I admitted to her.] I knew there was this one piece, “Introit” for violin and orchestra, and I thought, ‘Oh, if only there was something like that.’” As it turns out, the Introit is actually the middle movement of Finzi’s Violin Concerto, and is often played by itself as a separate concert work. “And I was so happy to bring it to an audience in Ireland, because it’s quite a beautiful piece of music.”

So which musical world is Tara McNeill most comfortable in, Celtic or classical? “I absolutely love both of them,” she said. “And what’s amazing about being in Celtic Woman is that they let me explore both. So I have two moments in the show in which I have solos.  For one of my solos I get to do a couple of reels and a jig, which is fun. And in the second half I get to play ‘For the Love of a Princess,’ from the movie ‘Braveheart’ which was composed by James Horner.  I get to really play with my heart and my classical (technique).  So I really love being in Celtic Woman because I can do everything there.”

McNeill does little or no concertizing these days outside the Celtic Woman shows because of time constraints. “But before I joined the group I would have been playing with a number of orchestras in Ireland, especially one called Camerata Ireland, a chamber orchestra.  We performed with the famous Northern Irish pianist Barry Douglas.  And just before the (Celtic Woman) group I would’ve been touring around with them a lot. They were such a lovely group of incredibly talented musicians, so I was very happy to be a part of that.”

As the newest Celtic Woman member, McNeill has only been in the group about a year, since July 2016 in fact. But she did get to play harp—her other instrument—in Celtic Woman’s PBS special “Destiny.” Later she auditioned, and was accepted, as their new violinist. “It’s been a whirlwind this past year,” she says simply. But the fact is, she actually replaced one of Celtic Woman’s founding members, violinist Máiréad Nesbitt. “She was in the group from the very, very beginning—12 years. So it was daunting, and also very exciting.” When Nesbitt was preparing to leave the group following the “Destiny” special, Celtic Woman’s musical director Gavin Murphy asked McNeill to audition. “I was very happy to do so because I had admired the group for year—I’d watched their PBS specials on YouTube. It really was a dream of mine to be part of the group, so I jumped at the opportunity.”  She still plays the harp in their current show “Voices of Angels” in a couple of numbers.

The personnel in Celtic Woman has fluctuated somewhat over its dozen years of existence; it’s currently a quartet.  “Celtic Woman is a platform for Irish singers and musicians to showcase what they can do on the world stage, and we all feel incredibly honored to be part of its legacy,” said Tara McNeill.

Over the 35 years that our local host Lee Worman has brought traditional Celtic and British Isles music to KSMU listeners on his “Gold Ring” program, I as his producer have learned that trad-Celtic “purists” tend to be quite adamant that some types of Irish folk (or folk-inspired) music are more “authentically” traditional than others. Tara McNeill feels Celtic Woman successfully bridges that gap. “I really think that we have a bit of everything for everyone.  The show is a mixture of some real authentic ‘trad’ players and singers who have been in that scene their whole lives, and then we also have people from classical music backgrounds, and we have people from musical theater. In some numbers we combine them, and in other numbers we would try to stay true to the realness of each genre. But Celtic Woman takes the element of the real, authentic trad and makes it into—well, it’s a show! So it makes everything bigger in a way—especially in this show (“Voices of Angels”).  We’ve recorded this show with a 72-piece orchestra, so you wouldn’t exactly get that in a pub in Ireland,” she added with a laugh.  “From the very beginning we’ve always been combining the traditional with the classical and with the musical theater. I think that’s what makes Celtic Woman unique.” Of course, they don’t tour with a 70+-piece orchestra (as she said, that part is pre-recorded). But the ensemble, in addition to the four women, includes percussionists—including the bodhran, the Celtic handheld drum, pipers, whistle players, and a choir (some of whom also play instruments). “So we have quite a set-up on stage,” said Tara McNeill.

The Hammons Hall audience on June 15 will see the full Celtic Woman ensemble performing various Celtic Woman favorites such as “Danny Boy” and “You Raise Me Up,” as well as new songs from the new “Voices of Angels” album, including “My Heart Will Go On” and the aforementioned “For the Love of a Princess.” There are also dancers in addition to the numerous musicians.

And by the way, as a native of Northern Ireland, Tara McNeill is pleased that the current Celtic Woman lineup includes another Northern Ireland native, Máiréad Carlin from Derry. So it’s half-and-half between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the group—“which is great,” she said.

Tickets for Celtic Woman are $39 and $59, or $100 for premium seating. For information call 836-7678 or visit