Tuesday November 16, 2010

The Legacy Of Riverdance

Athena Tergis (Federico Grillo)

By Gwen Orel

Years ago I visited a seminar at Trinity College, Dublin. A guest lecturer was said, "After Riverdance, Irish culture will never be the same."

"Same as what?" deadpanned a female student.

One of many legacies of Riverdance is popularization throughout the world of Irish dance, and music-filtered through global influences (including Russian and Spanish).

Now this week at Irish Arts Center comes another - the pairing of composer/visionary Bill Whelan, who conceived of Riverdance, and violinist Athena Tergis, who performed with the show on Broadway.

Most Irish trad players don't also play concerti. Then again, most Irish trad players use fiddles with four strings, not five-and didn't skip a classical education at Berklee College to play in Irish pubs. Or toured with Clarence Clemons, aka "The Big Man" (which deeply impresses this Jersey girl).

And while there are Irish composers who have arranged traditional music symphonically, to be honored (accused?) of changing Irish culture forever through your work is a unique line on the resume.

Whelan has also performed with Planxty, and composed scores for films, including Dancing at Lughnasa with Meryl Streep.

At the public performances at the Irish Arts Center ( this weekend as part of the Masters in Collaboration series the two will present new work, leap off cliffs, see where the notes take them.

They will perform all of Inishlacken, Whelan's three-movement concerto for violin and fiddle, two compositions co-written by the two, and work with a 9-piece string section, including percussionist Robbie Harris. Irish step-dancer Mick Donegan, another Riverdance alum, will also perform.

Masters in Collaboration at Irish Arts Center has brought together performers who represent different traditions, styles and eras - whether it's Sarah Suskind performing with Paul Brady or John Doyle with Andy Irvine.

The week-long residency includes a master class led by Athena on Tuesday, and a public talk led by series founder Mick Moloney midweek on Wednesday.

Tergis has played the Inishlacken before, with the Dublin Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing, among other places.

Her part demands classical chops, moving into high positions on the neck, while using with trad melodies and techniques.

Athena was busily practicing for it when we spoke last week, for four hours instead of usually one or less. The concerto is part of Whelan's Connemara Suite, which also includes Carna - which she'll also play.

The California girl now mainly lives in Italy, where she and husband Mario run a winery and recording studio (

"This is pushing the boundaries of everything. It's American, Irish, new, not apologetic, not trying to be traditional." When she was small, she mainly played mostly Scottish music with her best friend Laura Risk (who became a well known player in that genre), and also studied Classical music.

She released an album with Risk at age 16 - one of her early compositions, "Boch Lag Manag", appears next weekend the shows Saturday and Sunday, now blended with one of Bill's, "Lapsang Soo Chong". The pieces share Eastern European rhythms, 7/8 and 5/8.

When I write, I have a lot of visuals, colors and feelings. The piece is like a lake to me, deep and dark; it's rhythmic too like ripples on a lake. I don't think Irish or Bulgarian, to me it's just music." Blended with Bill's piece it becomes something new. Whelan finds the fit extraordinary - and the "gloss of orchestration" makes it sound like one piece written together.

The collaboration might never have happened - when she first auditioned for Riverdance, Athena recalls, she was half-hearted about it. Trad players thought of the show as "commercial, bad, a dark ride - a sell out." Frankie Gavin, for whom she sometimes covered in De Dannan, had referred her.

She auditioned att Bill's "Huge estate in Connemara, with a thatched cottage recording studio overlooking the water" not as prepared as she could be. But she was tapped to be on the "flying squad" which was flown to corporate gigs. Then she learned she was picked for Broadway.

Bill Whelan (Richard Noble)

The steady job, and apartment in a New York City (where she was born, in fact) were a dream come true. But it was more than that. It was training.

"In the trad world, you don't really perform; you sit in the corner with your head down, you don't draw attention to yourself in any way. Here everyone was making sure it was a performance. There were teams of directors, costumes - I was forced to jump around the stage, looking at people."

Hard to believe the tall blonde ever sat in a corner unnoticed - she moves her body, changes her expression, and inhabits the music when she plays; you can't miss the joy.

These days: "I'm an entertainer. Bill has a huge respect for our audience. Entertainment is why people come out to our shows."

The five string fiddle she plays now (for about three years) makes the fiddle a sort of cross between a fiddle and a viola, adds resonance to the music. Bill remembers Athena's audition well. "As far as I was concerned, she was straight in.

She's an extraordinary musicion who plays traditional music but has the capacity to stretch beyond it. She has a gift for melodic composition."

Whelan describes his own training as "the university of the workplace." In fact, he has a law degree from UCD - but never stopped playing music.

As a child in Limerick he had a little recording studio in his house ("a reel to reel machine" ) - and when he was 18 he had a song accepted as a score for a film - Bloomfield, with Richard Harris. "It was a big distraction to me! I was in London, with people like Shriley Bassey and the Bee Gees, catapulted into a world I could only see from the outside growing up."

His parents insisted he study law, but he played music the minute he left.

He had piano training throughout and learned orchestration, eventually going on to larger orchestral work.

In the 70s, he began playing on a couple of Planxty sessions, eventually joining the band.

And he will sing at the performances. He's well known as a composer, but he performs too.

Trad was always the key to his compositional style. He worked as a pianist in pit orchestras in theatres, playing in the shows Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and also composed for the W.B. Yeats Festival at the Abbey Theatre.

It makes sense - all those strands, the trad, classical, theatre - came together in Riverdance.

The precursor to that show was Timedance, written with Donal Lunny and 1981 with Planxty for Eurovision. The title of Riverdance honors that connection.

In 1992, Whelan wrote the Seville Suite, a large orchestral work using Irish and Spanish dance, that was the immediate precursor to Riverdance , which also appeared as a Eurovision Interval in 1994. The show debuted in 1995.

Whelan doesn't dance - but he worked with choreographers through his theatre background. He also produced U2's War album, and worked with Van Morrison, The Dubliners, Patrick Street and many others.

Like Athena, Bill is working hard. "I get up about 5 in the morning, and work nonstop until lunchtime." He's also teaching a class at Princeton with poet Paul Muldoon, for composers and authors.

The idea for this work with Athena came out of a visit to Connemara, where Bill now spends half of his time, last year.

Most challenging for Bill is collaborating at the early stage. But "working with somebody else with a different view of how tunes are made is interesting, makes me think about my own writing."

Says Athena, "I can't imagine anything I'd rather be doing."

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