Category: Archive

Trad Beat Dezi a Manchester marvel

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

DEZI DONNELLY and EAMON McELHOLM. At the Blarney Star, 43 Murray St., NYC. Sept. 22.

A five-time All-Ireland and two-time Fiddler of London champion, Manchester’s Dezi Donnelly gave a performance brimming with surprises and brilliant flourishes at his long-awaited New York City concert debut. It proved the advance hype on him as one of the most skillful and imaginative fiddlers now playing Irish music was spot on.

His style has been likened to that of Belfast fiddling legend Seán Maguire, and his rendition of "The Mason’s Apron" partly recalled Maguire’s own classic recording of the reel on the Four-Star Quartet’s "Music of Ireland" LP. Such a comparison is flattering to Donnelly, of course, but it’s also, ultimately, flawed. He is by no means an empath, channeling the spirit of other outstanding fiddlers, or a gifted mimic of their playing.

Donnelly is, in every important sense of the word, distinct. His ornamentation plays peek-a-boo at times, gone almost as soon as you notice it, eliciting quick smiles of recognition from the audience.

What’s extraordinary is that he slips in embellishments without ever straying or detracting from the melody. His moment-to-moment ornamentation decisions betray no hint of ego, no sense of self-congratulation for a turn well phrased. It’s obvious that he loves to play and loves the possibilities of expression within the music he plays.

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This all came across memorably in "Paddy’s Rambles Through the Park," a tune on which he used breathtaking bow control, drawing forth the somber beauty of the melody with great tenderness.

Donnelly also knows how to have some sportive fun with tunes. In his playing of the "Tommy Peoples/Kilfenora" jigs, he climbed the scale to the point where the notes seemed as evanescent as steam, then downstroked sharply and stridently, jarring listeners from the very reverie he just created.

In the piping tune "Padgin O’Rafferty" and in the medley "The Spey in Spate/Lads of Laois," his mastery of dynamics was matched by touches of daring, inserting ornaments that nimbly see-sawed the spine of the melody. In addition, his breadth of repertoire was refreshing, with three Breton compositions and a Bulgarian-flavored number all impressively performed.

Joining Donnelly was Eamon McElholm, a Tyrone singer and guitarist whose songs – "Rhythm and Rhyme," "Used to Love Me," "A Friend of Yesterday" — edged into bromidic folk-pop. He has a pleasing enough voice, but his style of guitar playing, proficient as it was, didn’t always mesh well with Donnelly’s fiddling.

The most noteworthy aspect of McElholm’s songs was the backing on fiddle by Donnelly, who contributed much more than the usual one-note sustains or wispy accents other fiddlers employ in such situations. It was obvious these two had carefully worked out a strong sonic balance between them, free of any tentativeness or grasping.

As his first Big Apple concert proved, Dezi Donnelly is nothing less than a fiddle phenomenon, blessed with the kind of prodigious talent that makes you want to shake the rest of the world into appreciating it.

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