On March 2, 2019, as part of their 57th Anniversary world tour, The Chieftains appeared at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan, Chicago in a special Symphony Center Presents concert. The setlist included: Gathering Mushrooms, Red Is The Rose, Shenandoah, Long Journey Home, March to Battle (Across the Rio Grande), Easter Snow, The Chieftains in Orbit / Fanny Power / Harp Solo, and The Hangman’s Reel.
The concert featured Paddy Moloney, Uileann pipes and tin whistle; Matt Molloy, flute; Kevin Conneff, bodhran and vocals; Jon Pilatzke, fiddle and dance; Triona Marshall, Celtic harp and keyboards; Alyth McCormack, percussion and vocals; Tara Breen, fiddle and saxophone; Cara Butler, dancer; Nathan Pilatzke, dancer; and special guests members of the Old St. Patrick’s Church Choir under the direction of Mark Scozzafave; the Caledonia Kilty Pipe Band, and 6 dancers from the Dennehy School of Irish Dance.
Above the stage at Orchestra Hall, a screen by way of banner proclaimed 2019 as the 57th Anniversary of The Chieftains. The screen was also used to project a video of their history, along with famous friends, before the concert began, Celtic symbols and the names of solo artists throughout the concert, and a short video of astronaut Cady Coleman in an astonishing recording she made in space using a tin whistle and flute borrowed from The Chieftains.
Known as cultural ambassadors, the 6 Grammy award winning group celebrated their heritage with a contemporary percussion-driven form of traditional Irish music, but also incorporated Scottish, Canadian, and American tunes, and performed a tribute to Nelson Mandela. This ability to include old and young musicians, hark back to history’s heroic persons, and transcend ethnic barriers- along with, of course, their heartbreaking virtuosity- is surely some part of the reason for their extraordinary longevity and relevance.
At home in Ireland, of course, the Chieftain’s have often been involved in major occasions; when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979 they performed to an audience of over 1.3 million; in 2011 they played as part of the historic visit to Ireland of HRH Queen Elizabeth II.
They have been honored in the United States, as well; they were the first ensemble to perform a concert in the Capitol Building in Washington DC and in 2012, marking The Chieftains’ 50thAnniversary they were awarded the inaugural National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala event in Philadelphia hosted by The American Ireland Fund “in recognition of their tremendous contribution to the music industry worldwide and the promotion of the best of Irish culture.”
Around the globe, the Chieftains performances have long been linked with worldwide historic events; they were the first Western musicians to perform on the Great Wall of China and participated in Roger Water’s “The Wall” performance in Berlin in 1990.
The concert was an absolute delight from beginning to end. The combination of dancers, singers, ancient and modern instruments and the sheer exuberant joy of the performers coupled with the keening, emotion-drenched skirling melodies took the sold-out audience on a nostalgic adventure.
The band’s longtime leader, Paddy Moloney, led the evening on Uilleann pipes and tin whistle, commenting and introducing with gentle humor. Kevin Coneff is one of the original Chieftains; looking perennially young, he charmed with an a cappella ballad, and from the rear of the stage, projected vocals and lent a strong sound with the bodhran. Matt Malloy, another original Chieftain, played a commanding clear flute.
Tara Breen and Jon Pilatzke are both incredible fiddlers, barely able to contain their foot-tapping embodiment of accompanying rhythm. They are also excellent step-dancers and Breen’s saxophone solo at the end was a special surprise. Pilatzke dancing with his brother Nathan made up a boundless duet of percussive ability. Cara Butler is a splendid, engaging dancer, propelled across the stage with vigor and style. In fact, the Irish and adapted tap dance throughout the evening was as welcome as the music- it was part and parcel of the music!
Triona Marshall is a super performer on the Celtic harp and keyboards, adding a level of celestial sound. Alyth McCormack’s otherworldly voice is complex and compelling. The Caledonia Kilty Pipe Band, ranged behind the Chieftains, added a feeling of wild campfire-lit nights beside the lakes, the glens, moors and mountains that exist in every country, in every culture, and form the background of everybody’s longing for home. The gorgeous blended voices of the Old St. Pat’s Choir soared to the ceiling with the type of melody that evokes first love, and the 6 young ladies from the Dennehy School filled the heart with the promise of innocence.
It was a wonderful, uplifting concert, the type of music that makes you proud and happy. For information and tickets to all the great programming of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to www.cso.org