‘Eclectic Celtic’ meets classical symphony

SymphonyTwoIt’s no secret that performing with an orchestra is a tremendous creative opportunity for an artist, but it can also come with a unique set of challenges.

This is especially true when the artist is Loreena McKennitt, whose ‘eclectic Celtic’ music is so rich in cultural and historic imagery.

“With a classical repertoire – or even with jazz or pop artists – I doubt there’s much discussion about images and cultural textures. Rather, there are other creative goals to consider. They’re not concerned about losing the bouzouki, for example, so it’s simpler and more straight ahead in some ways,” says Loreena. “Because my catalogue of songs is embedded with so many different cultural ingredients, expressed through such instruments as the hurdy gurdy, uilleann pipes and the oud, the challenge is to create orchestral arrangements that reflect back or enhance those ingredients and instruments without walking all over them or detracting from them.”

Loreena recently performed two sold-out concerts with the 55-member Stratford Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in her home base of Stratford, Canada. The concerts drew fans from as far as Germany, Brazil and the United States, some of whom came to an SSO fundraising tea beforehand so they could meet Loreena.

Also accompanying her during the concerts were fellow musicians Brian Hughes on guitars, Hugh Marsh on fiddle, Ben Grossman on percussion, Ian Harper on pipes and Andrew Downing on bass.

As the featured guest for their 10th anniversary concert series, Loreena performed six of her own songs with the orchestra, two of which involved extensive creative consultations with guest conductor and composer Ronald Royer. Special orchestral arrangements were subsequently tailored to accompany ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ and ‘Penelope’s Song’.

“When Ron Royer and I were discussing ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ I said it would be lovely if we could interpret musically the picture in my mind,” recalls Loreena. “The image I had was of a valley and a little church with birds singing in the trees. The bells from the church were ringing and there was a fine mist in the air. So I said to Ron it would be wonderful to look to the strings to create that imagery of mist and maybe we could look to the chimes to reflect the church bells and create that feeling.”

An audience probably knows as well as any artist that an orchestra can create powerful feelings one moment using the full breadth of its instruments, and then become very small and intimate the next. “It’s a much bigger and more versatile machine,” notes Loreena, adding a cautionary word about its use with her type of music. “But it can also completely override and distort and be counterproductive if you’re not careful. In many cases it has to wrap itself around what we are already doing.”

Performing with large groups of musicians isn’t exactly new to Loreena. Her live recording and companion DVD, Nights from the Alhambra, for example, includes 12 other musicians on such distinct and culturally diverse instruments as the kanoun, bodhrán, tabla, Celtic bouzouki and the lyra. But it’s still very different from performing with a 55-member orchestra playing classical instruments. Successfully integrating those classical elements into Loreena’s songs is a delicate balancing act.

“Orchestras are such a combined effort. It’s like singing in a choir.    You subvert your own independence in order to blend in, knowing    there will be a bigger sum that comes out it as a result.”

“The first challenge is getting the arrangement right,” says Loreena. “Then you have to take that arrangement to an orchestra with a conductor who’s intimate with it and who understands this isn’t Beethoven. It’s not conventional classical music. There are different opportunities and challenges with my music and you need to know where they lie and how to conduct the orchestra accordingly. And then you need an orchestra with the technical dexterity and skill to respond to that conducting.”

And that’s just what happened at Stratford.

“Ron Royer did a fine job of building the imagery into the arrangement and the symphony did a fine job of executing it,” says Loreena, applauding the fact the SSO is also a “labour of love,” its members travelling considerable distances from all directions for very little remuneration. “Yet they deliver for this community a beautiful experience.”

There is also the issue of collective versus individual when performing with 55 classical musicians. “Orchestras are such a combined effort. It’s like singing in a choir. You subvert your own independence in order to blend in, knowing there will be a bigger sum that comes out it as a result.”

Loreena has performed with orchestras before, but under very different circumstances. In 2008, she performed in a Christmas concert in Verona, Italy. She also performed at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2012 and 2014, as part of the Golden Hat Foundation concerts. Those occasions did not involve specific orchestras, instead they were symphonies assembled for the occasion.

Performing with the SSO was a first for Loreena and she likes to think it was for the orchestra too. “I hope it was an opportunity for them to engage in an exercise that is anchored to different creative reference points. When everyone gets on board with the theatrics and the imagery and the story, they – like myself – can become inspired by that and the performance will reflect it.”