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Trad Beat Lúnasa advances art of Irish instrumental music

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

LÚNASA. At the Great Hall at Cooper Union, 7th Street and Third Avenue, NYC. Feb. 10.

In 1859, New York inventor, manufacturer, and philanthropist Peter Cooper founded Cooper Union for the "advancement of science and art." Had this creator of, among other things, the washing machine been in his Great Hall this past Feb. 10, he would have been pleased at how far Lúnasa has advanced art — specifically, the art of performing Irish traditional instrumental music.

The ongoing challenge for the quintet — and indeed for any instrumental group — is to keep an audience raptly attentive without the felt need for an occasional song, and Lúnasa brought it off with equal measures of variety and virtuosity.

The audience knew they were in for a treat right from the opening medley: "The Snows They Melt the Soonest," a song melody stirringly performed by Kevin Crawford on flute with Trevor Hutchinson on upright bass, that led into some hard-driving dance music by the entire band. Lúnasa imparted a similar sparkle to other tunes from their first two recordings, such as "The Last Pint," a Pierre Bensusan composition played by both Crawford and Seán Smyth on whistles, and the galvanizing "Lord Mayo/Gavotte/Maid of Mt. Kisco" and "Fleur de Mandragore/Ash Plant/Siobhan O’Donnell’s" medleys.

Not content to rely on proven crowd-pleasers, the band previewed plenty of new material from their upcoming third album. Imaginatively arranged and skillfully played were the "Merry Sisters of Fate/Long Acre" reels, "Scully Casey’s/Dusty Miller" jigs, "Killarney Boys of Pleasure" song air, and two Asturian melodies sandwiching "Aires de Pontevedra," a Galician traditional tune that became popular among Breton musicians (mainly through piper Patrick Molard’s 1983 recording of it) and, later, Irish musicians.

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The standard of musicianship in Lúnasa is enviably high. As they demonstrated this night, Kevin Crawford and Seán Smyth are one of the most exciting flute-fiddle pairings in Ireland today. Newest member Cillian Vallely plays with a steady, steely resolve that allows ample room for harmony amid tightly articulated ornaments, and Trevor Hutchinson on bass and Donogh Hennessy on guitar are ever inventive in the indestructible beat they bring to the rhythm.

Overcoming some difficult acoustics (the hall’s ceiling tended to trap the sound at times) and sightlines (large structural pillars along the aisles partially blocked the audience’s view of the stage), Lúnasa stretched themselves musically in a performance full of heart and heady experimentation. They’re a band unafraid to take some risks in order to achieve the more intricate and intriguing sound heard this night.

The last stop for Lúnasa on their current tour will be the Celtic Music & Arts Festival in San Francisco on March 3 ([415] 392-4400).

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