Utopia Early Music brings Celtic flavor to Christmas program

Sun Dec 22, 2019 at 10:21 am
By Kate Mattingly
Utopia Early Music performed “A Celtic Christmas” Saturday night at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark.

Amid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, Utopia Early Music offers a smart yet inviting respite.  Their concert, “A Celtic Christmas,” was heard Saturday night at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark’s, the third oldest Episcopal Cathedral in the United States. 

The combination of this historic setting and music that spans six countries and seven centuries proved glorious and rejuvenating. Sonorous voices blended with sprightly instrumentals to transport listeners through Ireland, Britain, and the Celtic diaspora. As the program notes explain, England was originally the land of the Celtic Britons. Compositions on the program include selections from English publisher John Playford and his son, Henry.

UEM has carved a niche in Salt Lake City as an early music ensemble that knows how to balance thoroughly researched programs with entertaining concerts. The “Celtic Christmas” performance exemplifies their well-judged blend of historical accuracy and compelling programming. Christopher LeCluyse, cofounder of Utopia Early Music, introduced the program and welcomed the audience that filled the pews of the church and the balcony.

A through-line of the evening was the clarity and vibrancy of all the artists. The four singers included tenor LeCluyse, soprano (and UEM cofounder) Emily Nelson, mezzo Megan Lee, and bass Ricky Parkinson. The four musicians were violinist Bronwen Beecher, Lisa Chaufty on flute and recorder, cellist Eleanor Christman Cox, and Therese Honey playing Celtic harp. While each voice and each instrument contributed a distinct sound, together they intertwined like a smooth braid. 

It was especially exciting to hear “The Wexford Carol” and to listen to each singer perform a verse and then come together for the closing section. An iridescent equanimity shone through the performance, each part balanced with the others.

Vocal and instrumental selections were interspersed throughout the evening, and the moods of the song ranged from calming to vigorous. “O Antiphons,” a 16th century Springfield Antiphonal arranged by Jeffrey Jones-Ragona, was spare and unaffected while “Can hela’r dryw” a traditional Welsh song, was vigorous and forthright. This song closed the first half of the concert with an emphatic, “Hey!”

A highlight of the second half of the program was “Auld Lang Syne,” with lyrics by Robert Burns, performed by LeCluyse. He modulated his voice to create textures and nuances that were captivating. The lyrics, “[W]e’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne,” stood out as a fitting metaphor for the concert as a whole.

Each performer invests years of study (their biographies include an impressive array of academic degrees and university positions) to create an evening that is dedicated to belonging and connection. The program notes state that each song describes a loving relationship: “the love of a parent for a child, of close friends, or of the divine.” It’s a fitting reminder of the significance of the holidays, and the love and kindness that keep people connected. Spending 90 minutes immersed in harmonious and riveting music, surrounded by the designs of architect Richard Upjohn, is a wonderful reminder of the richness and value of the arts.  

Utopia Early Music’s “A Celtic Christmas” will be repeated 5 p.m. Sunday. utopiaearlymusic.org

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