Martin Hayes finds common ground at the Irish Arts Center in New York


It’s not very often – well, it’s a first – that Aristotle has appeared in this space, but a trotted phrase has been attributed to him written about 2,370 years ago in his monumental work Metaphysics with a calculation later applied by Gestalt psychologists for further interpretation.

The adage “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” kept ruminating in my mind last weekend as I attended the final residency at Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center with virtuoso fiddler Clare Martin Hayes and his latest offering, the Common Ground Ensemble.

A magical week. Thanks to Martin Hayes and the Common Ground Ensemble for filling our theater with music, to our audience for filling the house and @culture_ireland for helping to set it all up.#world premiere #newIAC pic.twitter.com/Yb9qtW5ptZ

— Irish Arts Center (@IrishArtsCenter) February 7, 2022

Helping the all-new space get off the ground in its first year, the Common Ground Ensemble performed four shows to packed crowds from February 3-6 in the second-floor theater, which for this show was set up for an audience of 199. The five-artist collaboration was originally set to debut at the National Concert Hall in Dublin where it will appear later in the year.

But the pandemic changed the plan and the Irish Arts Center was able to benefit from the troupe’s first performance which began simply as thoughts in the imaginative mind of the veteran Maghera musician in East Clare. These thoughts became Internet contacts with his potential team that he was accumulating along the common bonds of expressive musicality in different genres.

For about 25 years we were treated to a wonderful duo of Martin Hayes on fiddle and Dennis Cahill on guitar whose interaction created a new way of enjoying traditional Irish music at that time. Sadly, we won’t be seeing this duo again as Cahill’s health prevented him from performing, but the duo was already an important part of other larger collaborations like the Gloaming and the Martin Hayes Quartet, which gave Hayes greater opportunity to expand what he does musically. and, very importantly, for other artists who are drawn into his web.

Hayes, in his own quiet way, has built an impressive resume as a creative producer and tradition presenter through his recruitment as artist-in-residence or director at such respected festivals as the Masters of Tradition in Bantry, Co. Cork, the Kilkenny Festival of the Arts in Kilkenny and the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

In each of these venues, Hayes surrounded himself with top musicians in and out of the mainstream realm to assert an appropriate role in which the music he grew up with had equal status and appealed to audiences who might not have be not grown up with. .

Throughout this time he has never stopped defending his own roots with the Tulla Ceili Band, founded by his father P. Joe Hayes, and the Feakle International Traditional Festival which has firmly maintained the tradition each year in East Clare.

All that success hasn’t really changed the humble artist who wouldn’t rank too high on the ego scale. His professionalism and pride in what he does taught Hayes “not to be afraid to let go and reach for the next thing,” he told me over the phone.

On the Sunday night show he opened with the well known tune and song ‘Aisling Gheal’ composed by Sean O’Riada and sung so beautifully by one of his West Cork proteges, Iarla O’Lionnard at other times, but in this show was left to interpretation by the Common Ground Ensemble.

Not surprisingly, Hayes again chose wisely with a diverse group of musicians known for their own virtuosity and performances in different genres.

Originally from Cork, pianist Cormac McCarthy was steeped in traditional music in his family and became an excellent jazz musician. Kyle Sanna from Brooklyn is an innovative guitar composer and arranger known for his work with Seamus Egan and Dana Lynn on various projects.

Kate Ellis, director of the Crash Ensemble in Ireland, originally from Essex in England, is considered one of Ireland’s most prominent cellists. And finally, Brian Donnellan on accordion and bouzouki reflects Hayes’ own teen association and family ties to the Tulla Ceili Band.

Hayes wisely chose to be spared in his own setlist introductions, but passed on just enough information to establish a long, continuous thread with the tunes and people who brought them to life as songwriters or performers like O’ Riada aforementioned or the far simpler and unique Micho Russell. He wanted to allow most of the 90-minute show to be a musical conversation between the eclectic ensemble and they did a great job of doing that.

Despite the grandeur of the new theater with its brilliant lighting and sonic atmosphere, it almost seemed like they were in such tight talk with each other that there was indeed a fourth wall separating them from the audience. No worries that the audience wouldn’t be in tune with what was happening, as the standing ovations and constant applause confirmed that the collaboration was effective and moving and off to a good start.

Other special guests appeared over the weekend, but I think the essential quintet satisfied the audience. Once again, Hayes proved his genius not just in performance, but in his own tasteful and respectful preservation of early music. Fair play to him and the Irish Arts Center for creating common ground.

*This column first appeared in the February 9 edition of the weekly Irish Voice, IrishCentral’s sister publication.

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