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Making a difference in this World - Interviews with Matthew, Daryl, James - April 2019
Matthew Gilsenan April 2019
Daryl Simpson April 2019
James Nelson April 2019
Bringing sunshine to a wet Okanagan - A review, April 2019
Forever Young video - Celtic Tenors
Pure Joy - An interview with James Nelson (2015))
Perfect Harmony - An interview with James Nelson (February 2012)
The Celtic Tenors - A Wee Review, Rosemary's style (2012)
Links - To more information, formal biographies, web sites, photos, recordings and videos
Making a difference in this World
Interviews with The Celtic Tenors, 2019 - Matthew Gilsenan, Daryl Simpson and James Nelson
by Rosemary Phillips
Pre-amble: While “The Celtic Tenors” are known for their intimate and brilliant performances around the world as a group, individually they are somewhat reticent to speak of their own accomplishments, their contributions to humanity, their personal passions. They usually speak as a group, with no one of the three taking the spotlight. What follows is a very unique opportunity to go behind the scenes with each of Matthew, Daryl and James - in their own voices.
|The Celtic Tenors performing on their 2019 Australia-New Zealand tour
But first, an introduction:
Like delicious Italian Neapolitan ice-cream, with three delightfully creamy flavours together in one rich and tantalizing dish, The Celtic Tenors, Ireland’s globetrotting classical-crossover artists, are three very distinct voices and personalities blended in perfect harmony to provide a delectable dessert of music – as one voice - while making a difference in this world. James Nelson chuckled, “We all love desserts - and we also sing the Neapolitan repertoire (classic Italian songs).”
Spoon by delicious spoonful: “We have taken the world bit by bit, through word of mouth,” said Matthew Gilsenan. “It’s the quality of our show that calls people back. The thing is, we have fun. We strive to have a positive show. We try to uplift.”
While there is such chaos in this world, The Celtic Tenors, through their incredible harmonies, choice of music (from classical arias, Celtic delights, a capellas, and popular contemporary songs), the stories behind the music, and spontaneous quick-witted banter between each-other and the audience, bring a sense of heart-warming care. For the two hours of a concert all troubles are left behind, and, are instead replaced with spoonfuls of laughter, joy and compassion for fellow humanity.
Quality not quantity: Added Matthew, “There are huge advantages to keeping our concerts small. In a big show, every moment has its place and time, and there’s no room to do something totally in the moment. I like to have an inspired moment, and do something different - in that moment.”
Melting together: Said Daryl Simpson, “As much as anything, the three of us work on stage making music. It’s why we were attracted to music in the first place - singing, calming, reassuring. On the whole it’s very positive – to enjoy it as much as we can, to put on something the public is going to enjoy.” Their camaraderie is evident in each performance. “It is genuine, and an audience can see that. Right now, we are like brothers – we can fall out one minute and be best friends the next. We are old enough and wise enough to understand that.”
|The Celtic Tenors on their 2019 Australia-New Zealand tour
A delectable experience: “We are simply a singing group and we get a chance to fire through any song from around the world,” continued Matthew. “We are not tied to songs we have written or from a hit list. We have about five songs that are mainstay, but we always try new songs. It’s a musical experience that keeps us energized. We are on a cycle now of renewing - with really old Irish songs. While other groups may record these as a first album, it’s taken us 14 (albums) – like a coming of age of the group.”
Not to forget toppings: “We find it a privilege to do what we are doing, going around the world,” added Daryl. “We also enjoy doing what we do.”
“I love what I do,” laughed James, “and, to the Neapolitan dessert, you can add chocolate sprinkles.”
Those toppings include 14 recordings with over one-million sales, and their work for humanity at home and around the world. What follows is but a sprinkle of the lives of these remarkable men, for in each of Matthew, Daryl and James is a book. These interviews were done just after their Canadian tour and as they were preparing for their special 10-day Coach Tour of Ireland and their highly successful 2019 six-week tour of Australia and New Zealand.
Matthew (Mattieg) Gilsenan
Interview April 24, 2019
by Rosemary Phillips
Matthew the farmer, and his community: I’m sitting in the middle of my parent’s North Meath farm in very rural Ireland. I love where I grew up and really wanted to stay here, where the traditional music is local and people do it on weekends. My whole family here are involved in lots of elements of our society, from the farm community to the traditional music, the ballad singing - that’s all part of my past (and present).
I got married 17 years ago to a local girl, Celestine, who has French ancestry. We now have three children – Sean, Grace, and Rose. They are great kids. I’m away a lot, which has been the case for my entire married life. We get into a rhythm for a couple of weeks, and then I’m away for up to six weeks at a time. I try to keep in touch with the farm, with my dad and brother. I’m the eldest sibling. My sister Deirdre Shannon sang with Celtic Woman a few years ago, and has a successful singing career.
In university I’d come home on weekends. I’d be on the tractor and the combine for barley and wheat, milk cows, sheer sheep, feed calves. You get to experience many things on a farm and have to be extremely resourceful. My granny milked 13 cows by hand. Now we have three robots and our farm is going from 13 to 120 and to 300 grass-fed cows that roam the hills.
I’m also very good with my hands. I built this house. I’ve got a full-size grand piano that was absolutely not functioning, so I stripped it down and rebuilt it. It is now fully functional. I’m into recycling and giving things life. In this world we need to try a bit harder to keep it beautiful for our kids.
Matthew the singer, and The Celtic Tenors: I studied engineering then worked in Peterborough in England, then in California, for Ritz Crackers. I had a laid-back version of life and could take time to go surfing. It was then (21 years ago) I took a break from the job for six months to attempt to get into the music business. I had always sung (with lessons starting at age 10 in a convent, then with some of the great Irish and Scottish teachers). I figured I’d fail gracefully and go back to engineering. It was in 1998 I first met Daryl, in the chorus of Die Fledermaus where James was a principal.
|Matthew with The Celtic Tenors on their 2019 Australia-New Zealand tour - L to R: Matthew, John Peters (tour manager), James, Daryl and Brian McGrane (musical director).
In 1999 James approached me about the Three Irish Tenors, to replace a chap who had just got married and left at the time of a massive gig. I was totally green but I got totally into it, and by the end of six months we had a really good tenor sound going. We hired a manager who got us into EMI and Decca – both on the same day. In their board rooms we sang songs from our tour and both companies offered a signing on the spot - and a name change to The Celtic Tenors – which was more expansive and opened more doors for us, for we also sing Scottish and Welsh songs.
Those were the high days of the record industry, so we got a great advance, Rolls Royce limousines and the royal treatment. We won the Echo Klassik Award in Germany for best classical cross-over for 2002, and landed a PBS special in America.
(Twenty years later) Celestine and I now manage the group and keep the show on the road. Celestine is the executive producer and essentially our manager. John Peters is our tour manager and takes care of routing, hotels, flights, and the theatre sound and lighting so there are no surprises. Our musical director and pianist-guitarist is Brian McGrane.
Influencing others: (In about 2002,) we were singing Remember Me at a song competition in Tipperary, Ireland, when a Canadian songwriter, Jill Ann Siemens, loved what we were doing and set up a group called The Canadian Tenors (launched in Victoria, British Columbia in 2004 and now known as The Tenors).
My son attends a fantastic school in a nearby town where they have great sport but not much music. So, I took it in hand last year to get a choir going. There are now 75 members. They have performed with us in a Celtic Tenors’ concert.
A tribute to John McCormack: In one of my ‘other’ projects, besides simple shows of songs that I truly love, performed with a guitar player and piano, I pay tribute to John McCormack, an Irish tenor born in 1884. By 1945 he had 800 recordings. He would sing to 5000 people in venues without a microphone – Covent Garden in London, the Met in New York. He sang the really truly great Irish songs. I felt his story is worth telling. I do a show with a grand piano for accompaniment, and tell the story of his life, and like John, with no microphone. In Ireland people love it. It has given me insight into a more magnificent bank of Irish songs.
Advice to up-and-coming singers: You have to be positive and on the game all the time; learn the craft. It takes sixteen years to become an overnight success. Learning how to sing is only a tenth of the way there. What is important is what you say between the songs. You need to love people and love travelling and being on the road. And take a philosophical approach, like when flights get cancelled. Stay cool, and stay calm. And have fun!
Interview April 29, 2019
by Rosemary Phillips
Daryl the tenor: One privilege of my life was to study privately with Nicolai Gedda. He passed away last year (2018), in his 90’s. He invited me to work with him and was probably one of the most gracious, intelligent and incredible people I have ever met. He was fluent in ten languages, sang in seven or eight, and was the principal tenor in all the top opera houses in the world. He had a huge career, but he didn’t seek the limelight; he was not interested in that. He was happy to do his thing and slip off into the background.
|Daryl Sympson with members of the Omagh Community Youth Choir
The first time I went to see him in Geneva I saw a beautiful house beside his. It had been Audrey Hepburn’s home for many years. I asked him, “Did you know her?” He replied, “I would speak with her on occasion, but I did not like to bother her.” That was his way. As an artist, and a performer, he was a consummate professional. I certainly got a lot of understanding on how to conduct myself in my career. He worked with me on the technical but I learned so much more that that, just by being in his company with the things he had to say.
Daryl joins The Celtic Tenors: I first met Matthew in the chorus of Die Fledermaus in 1998. In 2006, I was in the thick of the opera-house busy-season in Zurich, and was set on staying there with a contract, when I got a call, out of the blue, from Matthew. He asked me to consider taking a year with The Celtic Tenors. We felt it would be a year, but now it’s nearly fifteen. I didn’t have a family when we started. Right now, it’s home time. The key is to have a balance, to enjoy and be with the family, and to continue making music and having an audience. As The Celtic Tenors we have found a nice level to be working at, just under the radar.
Probably the most boring thing anyone can do is travel with us, to sit and wait. Those who have, can’t believe how busy we are and where we get the energy. It’s like everything else, we have learned how to pace ourselves when we are on tour. It comes over the years, as we get older; we work out how to get around things, mentally and otherwise.
When we come on stage we are there. If we do have a dramatic day, sometimes it adds to the performance that night. We have been lucky in that we have been able to find a balance before a show, and can manage each other. That’s a sign of how we have matured as a group. Not that we are as cool as you like when we go on stage, but we are well prepped.
Passing on experience: This is a hard lifestyle choice, an incredibly difficult career to get set up in, no matter what kind of music. We try and pass on as much as we can, if we can smooth the path for those coming up, for we know the challenges, whether or not our advice is taken. The industry has changed, media has changed, technology has changed. There are as many challenges today as thirty years ago, just slightly different.
Community spirit: Back in August 1998, my home town of Omagh had the worst terrorist attack. Unfortunately, 29 people lost their lives and many were injured. I happened to be there that day, as were many members of my family. We had 30 years of troubles and had many bad days, but this was the Armageddon of worst days. Omagh has 25,000 people. To say that everyone was affected is an understatement. There was a huge void in the town.
|Daryl Simpson at the keyboard with the Omagh Community Youth Choir
I had been involved in community relations through local programs and wanted to do something through music, with both sides of the community, Protestant and Catholic teenagers, to provide peace, solace, and stillness. My response was to create the Omagh Community Youth Choir. It is now a fully-fledged charity, and tours all over the world, and has recorded with many artists. We have had some incredible opportunities, like performing with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, at Glastonbury, on PBS, in Geneva. It’s been a labour of love, combining my professional and amateur life. Twenty years later we are still singing, and I am still the musical director.
2018 British Empire Medal recipient - for services to Community Relations and Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland: I have always been involved in various community outreach programs, working behind the scenes, bringing people together, sometimes just facilitating meetings for different groups. It’s always been about bringing the communities together.
19 April 2019 journalist Lyra McKee, 29, shot dead in Londonderry: We’ve had 20 years of palpable peace. This is a wake-up call to not take the peace process for granted but to continue working actively to bring people together. It’s devastating. People need to be proactive in awareness and community spirit.
A change in travel: If there’s one part of touring that we despise, it’s the security checks at airports… they are like a school teacher scraping their nails on a chalkboard. We meet up with them pretty much every day when travelling. I think of my transatlantic flights, years ago, sitting with the pilots in the cockpit. That’s not possible now.
Interview April 29, 2019
by Rosemary Phillips
Am I too early? Have you had your coffee? How are you?
(And so it starts with James, and always has done, as he thinks of the other person, in this case, me the interviewer. It’s like talking with an old friend.)
A luxury Coach Tour: We are starting our second Celtic Tenors 10-Day Luxury Irish Coach Tour tomorrow – with about 60 people, mostly Americans, a few Canadians and Germans. Last time I was dreading it, being on the bus where there are people with mixed political and religious views, but there were no problems. Chris and Kelly from Boston put on these coach tours, with acts, so we are on show and working all the time. I was just hoping for good weather. We do concerts in surprise locations. Last time we were able to arrange a concert in the church where the Irish poet W. B. Yeats was laid to rest. It was very emotional. And there are special venues on this tour too… I can’t tell you where because they are a surprise! I can tell you we are going to the Japanese gardens in Kildare.
The impact of unrest: Since we came home after our Canadian tour there has been a death in Derry, which hasn’t happened in a long time.
My mother was from just outside Belfast. There was a curfew and she was shot at once. When she graduated from Queens her first job came up from the South, in Sligo. She went for the interview, got the job, met a shopkeeper (my dad), and got married. We never knew her family at all because of the border.
I remember, as children, the troubles impacted our lives in the South. When we would go across the border shopping for treats we couldn’t get in the Republic of Ireland, we had rifles pointed into the car, the boot (trunk) was searched, and soldiers were up against us. That was scary for a youngster.
My dad’s only sister married a man from the North whose printing business was blown up three times. We didn’t know that side of the family either.
Music and dementia: Dad is not doing well. He was diagnosed six years ago with Lewy Body dementia and he’s still around. His conversations are wacky and weird. It’s the long goodbye. The song The Dutchman is very therapeutic for me. Most of the time Dad doesn’t know who we are yet he is reasonably happy. I reintroduce myself, sing a song, and he cries. He has some favourites, and he mouths the words. He couldn’t sing a tune when he was well, but now he sings Danny Boy in perfect tune and unison. I stared with my mouth open. He could never sing in his lifetime, and now, while he doesn’t know who he is, he sings in tune. As soon as you stop the song he’s back in his reality and weird world. A year ago, we thought he was dying. The vicar was there, and started The Lord is my Shepherd. Dad sat up and said, “I know that song,” and came back.
Building projects in Kenya: I’m still working in Kenya (for orphaned children of AIDS parents). I’ve been there eleven times, but at this stage my time is best valued at raising funds from here, with fundraising concerts to help send the kids to university. In Texas after a show a woman came up and asked to sponsor a child through college. Forty minutes ago, I sent 800 Euros donated by a couple in Germany for a student who is doing a computer course.
|James Nelson in Kenya
It’s breaking the cycle of slums where the children have been living under galvanized sheeting by open sewers. Many have now been through primary and secondary schools, college, and are working and making a living. If the children get the qualifications, they can become a great role model for those younger ones coming up.
Dominic now has a two-year degree as a chef and is working in Dubai. Lillian was a senior in the orphanage, and is now paid by the government as a teacher in that same orphanage. Accountants, engineers, car mechanics are coming out of the orphanages. Kevin was put on a bus and dumped off in a remote area and was begging for a year-and-half, then taken in by the orphanage. At a fundraising benefit 25 kids sat at a huge oval table, with silver service, and a three-course meal. Kevin said, “I feel like a king.” I will never forget it – Kevin had no history, had nothing, and yet he felt like a king.
|James Nelson with one of the children in Kenya
Teaching the young: I love what I do, and I love to teach as well, up-and-coming young tenors. The more you tour and sing the better teacher you become. One thing that can be taught is audition techniques. In one audition I sang my entire piece and the panel applauded, but said, “You are too fat for the role.” School doesn’t prepare you for that.
The future: We have a tour of Australia coming up – the best coffee. There are a few other places I would like to go – to the Far East, and Japan. That may happen some time. As long as I enjoy it, I will be singing with The Celtic Tenors. At the moment, I’m loving it.
Post-script - While The Celtic Tenors’ harmonies play on my stereo system, and the remains of the litre of Neapolitan ice-cream (the real-cream variety) are put back in the freezer, I finish an article that could be many pages more. Meanwhile, I give my thanks for all Matthew, Daryl and James do in Making a Difference in this World.
The Celtic Tenors bring sunshine to a wet Okanagan
A review - Rosemary style, April 2019
April 13 was a wet, rainy and gray spring day in Kelowna, British Columbia. The Celtic Tenors had flown in and brought rays of sunshine and cheer to the Rotary Centre for the Arts with their quick-witted banter, spine-tingling vocal harmonies, and camaraderie between themselves and the audience.
|The Celtic Tenors
A good half-hour before the sold-out performance, the lobby was already bustling with excited patrons, tickets in hand, waiting to enter the theatre for their adventure into glorious music and heart-warming entertainment from these world-class, globe-trotting performers and recording artists who bring their love of music and life to touch the very soul.
I had a small notebook in hand to keep tabs of the performance, but once again I became so engrossed and caught up in the energy and music my scratches are basically illegible and incoherent. In addition, I couldn’t see my scribbles because my eyes kept tearing up.
Tears of joy! Tears of gratitude! Tears of compassion! For not only did their program contain songs of love, such as In My Daughter’s Eyes and Red is the Rose and Carrickfergus, joyful hand-clapping familiars like I’ll Tell Me Ma and Whiskey in the Jar (the audience had to be reminded when and how to clap-along), the lads touched on life challenges, like caring for elders with The Dutchman, evolving science with Galileo,, the environment with John Denver’s Calypso (with audience yodelling participation), of change, with Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears, and tragedy with the stirring Bring Him Home from Les Misérables.
In the twenty years since The Celtic Tenors' inaugural performances in Ireland, these classical-crossover artists have brought joy to audiences on all continents - and they just keep getting better and better. They love what they do – and it shows! Such passion! Such joy! And such depth of true feeling.
James Nelson (the more operatic, from Sligo), Matthew Gilsenan (the more pop style, from North Meath) and Daryl Simpson (the go-to-guy for the high notes, from Omagh) meld together North and South, Catholic and Protestant, and through their concerts take the audience on a journey through harmony, peace, love, and hope. Each song in their program tells a story. They tell the stories behind the stories, background behind song origins and composers, life anecdotes and personal experiences, accompanied by their intimate and humorous banter.
The program included songs from their newly released recording, An Irish Songbook (it's delicious - I'm listenint to it as I type - and I'm melting) which takes them back to their Celtic roots and folk songs. However, not forgotten were classical jewels - from Verdi, Remember Me, written for the Celtic Tenors by Phil Coulter, closing with Time to Say Goodbye (Con te partirò) written by Francesco Sartori and Lucio Quarantotto. After a rousing encore with Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, the soaring high notes and crescendos had the audience leaping to their feet in appreciative applause and shouts of 'bravo.'
The Celtic Tenors ARE harmony; three incredible individual voices that blend into one. Their harmony is not limited to their music but reaches out to caring for humanity through their choice of songs and lyrics and their work outside the concert hall. For example, James works with AIDS children in Kenya. Daryl mentors young talent, and he received the British Empire Medal for services to Community Relations and Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland in the Queen’s 2018 New Year Honours List.
During this concert the Celtic Tenors included and highlighted their musical director and pianist-guitarist Brian McGrane. They also recognized and gave appreciation to their tour manager John Peters, and all the staff and volunteers with the Rotary Centre – by name. And, to honour a request from the audience, in the lobby after the concert they performed Danny Boy, a cappella, with such tenderness – a perfect ending to a perfect evening.
This reviewer has become a biased fan and recommends a Celtic Tenors LIVE concert for the music, humour, love, humanity, caring and heart. It took me hours to come down to Earth! I can understand why audiences love them wherever they go. You can’t beat a live performance!
An interview article with James Nelson of The Celtic Tenors
By Rosemary Phillips, 2015
Fabulous! Wonderful! Excellent! Phenomenal! Refreshing! Uplifting! Funny! Personable! They really connected with the audience! They were so good we didn’t want them to leave! - And so say hundreds of reviewers (on Ticketmaster) for the Celtic Tenors (Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson and Daryl Simpson) and their recent block-buster tour with Celtic Woman through Australia and across the United States.
The phone rang promptly at 9 a.m., right on schedule, and there was James Nelson, founding member of the Celtic Tenors (1995), taking time to casually chat, in his gentle Irish brogue, about the group’s latest adventures and upcoming return to the Port Theatre in Nanaimo on Friday, November 20. It was like talking with an old friend, catching up on all the latest news since our interview of 2012.
Over the phone the excitement in James’ voice was noticeable. “Tomorrow we sing in Lafayette. We have never performed in Louisiana before. Now we can claim to having sung in 48 states in the US. At the moment I’m sitting looking over the skyline of New Orleans. Last night we went to listen to music. Today we’ll be going to Bourbon Street in the Old French Quarter for lunch, and tonight we are joining members of Celtic Woman at a Halloween Party – a completely alien concept to me. We’ve even got costumes!”
What a year: For the Celtic Tenors, 2015 has been extraordinary, as they travelled the world with their own show, released their latest recording, then joined Celtic Woman on tour. “It seemed like an ideal situation,” continued James. “It’s a bit different for us to be an opening act for others. Years ago we opened for Dionne Warwick and Air Supply, so it’s been a while. We have half an hour and feature some of the songs from our album Timeless, and finish with Nessun Dorma. Then, at the close of the show we join Celtic Woman for The Parting Glass, in seven-part harmony. It’s a rousing end.”
When they (Celtic Tenors and Celtic Woman) sang together at the end of the show, the entire crowd was spellbound. – Ticketmaster Review
Doing what they love – in harmony: Matthew, James and Daryl, all classically trained, Celtic crossover tenors, undoubtedly Ireland’s finest, love to sing – in harmony. And have fun! “We sing the big tenor numbers, but we also do songs from our homeland, and other Celtic countries and a bit of pop music,” said James who does most of the harmony arrangements. “We present a complete mix of everything... and some in our own language.”
|The Celtic Tenors
Photo by Barry McCall
New record label: “Last year we signed on with Decca Records Australia through Universal Music. It’s the second signing with a major label in our careers. This year we released Timeless. It’s a very harmony-led album. The first song is Calypso by John Denver. The record company suggested it and we are really glad they did. We love it. It’s such a feel-good song. There are also songs by Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan, songs we grew up with. One favourite is In My Daughter’s Eyes. It’s just the most perfect song about anyone who has a child. We are doing it every night on this tour, and the audience loves it.”
The highlight for me was hearing them (Celtic Tenors) sing “In My Daughter’s Eyes” – beautiful. – Ticketmaster Review
“We also have a new Christmas album. We weren’t singing Christmas songs for the Celtic Woman tour, but the Christmas CDs were the biggest seller - they sold like mad!”
Now with 12 recordings and two PBS specials under their belts and over a million albums in sales (three platinums) these world-class tenors have, over the years, reached No. 1 Chart positions in Ireland and Germany, No. 2 in the UK, the top ten in US Billboard and Canadian charts and most recently charted No. 4 in Australia.
Much more than music: There’s so much more to the Celtic Tenors than concerts. Matthew is raising a family, with three children, and Daryl has now become a parent. Daryl continues his work with the Omagh Community Youth Choir, bringing young people together to promote peace and reconciliation through music. Meanwhile, James carries on with his project in Kenya. “I help raise funds for housing for children orphaned by AIDS. Besides being part of the building team I also teach music and do solo performances with the children. Many of those children are now in university. Two have received their diplomas as chefs, and others as primary school teachers and nurses. It’s lovely to see this with the children we have known. And a few of our tours have been linked to the Mercy Ships project out of Vancouver. It’s so nice to be doing something for others.”
Facing life: In addition, James, like many, has an ailing aged parent. “My dad has Lewy Body dementia. He’s gone through some awful phases. He was so incredibly fit until recently but is deteriorating. It’s so hard.”
Courageously living his truth: “I have always been very private about my life, but once the same-sex marriage referendum was passed in Ireland in May of this year, I was asked to tell my story. I was raised in a different era. I had been living a lie and tried to hide it for decades. The funny thing is that I came out to my close friends and colleagues 25 years ago, yet one or two of my close friends never knew. As a writer (Nelson’s Column for the Sligo Weekender) I already had the story in my head, so I wrote it and had it published. It was like therapy, and a release. I thought I would have a few negative responses - I was ready for that. But there were none. Not one negative. The response from people in letters, in e-mails and on Facebook, has been amazing. When we are on tour, radio stations have often asked, ‘Are you married?’ This year, in Australia, we did an interview with their main gay radio station. It was wonderful to just be myself.”
Returning to Nanaimo: “After a quick trip back home to Ireland we tour Canada and the US in November and December with our own show. And joining us on stage at the Port Theatre will be Colm Henry, our music director and pianist. All of us just love Vancouver Island.”
Painting the Irish landscape: Three tenors – one voice – like painting the Irish landscape in song – and evoking the very soul of the Emerald Isle - Matthew, James and Daryl will whisk the audience away into a world of pure joy and perfect harmony in a concert sure to please every palate. I know – I’ve seen them perform - LIVE!
An interview article with James Nelson of The Celtic Tenors
By Rosemary Phillips, 2012
INTRO 2012: This interview article with The Celtic Tenors, the most successful classical crossover artists ever to emerge from Ireland, was originally written in preparation for their concert at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo, British Columbia, on Thursday, March 22; a fundraiser for the The Vancouver Island Symphony. I was unable to attend the concert in Nanaimo but I did see the one in Cranbrook, BC on Tuesday, March 27, and have written a Wee Review that follows.
|The Celtic Tenors
Matthew Gilsenen, Daryl Simpson, James Nelson
Put together three brilliant tenor voices with natural Irish brogue, singing spine-tingling classical, folk, Irish, Gaelic and pop favourites in stacked three-part harmonies, then mix them up with quick witted banter and you have The Celtic Tenors. The charismatic, globe-trotting Celtic Tenors bring with them a bit of Ireland as they take to the Port Theatre stage with their uplifting show, on Thursday, March 22, and help Vancouver Island celebrate St. Patrick and everything Irish - in perfect harmony!
Meanwhile, on a Thursday in February, James Nelson, a member of The Celtic Tenors since 1995, was caught for a chat between sound checks for a sold-out charity concert in a church outside Dublin. “It’s a rare thing for me to sing solo, but I happened to be free tonight. On Saturday we are all performing for a concert in my late mother’s birthplace. She came from County Down in Northern Ireland and my father from the south. When they married there was harmony. And it was my mother taught me about harmony in music and singing. She was my biggest inspiration.”
Working and singing together in harmony
And what harmony! Three classically-trained Irish tenor voices, Matthew Gilsenan (the more pop style), James (the more operatic), and Daryl Simpson (the go-to-guy for the high notes), melding together not just in their music but in their relationship with each other and with the audience – all with rollicking good humour. They have recorded eight albums, performed around the world, been seen on TV (including a PBS special) across the USA, Canada and Europe, and sung for world leaders, while pioneering a new style of ‘cool’ never before seen as they continue to break the traditional tenor mould.
“It has been said that the Celtic Tenors do to Irish tenor singing what River Dance has done to Irish dance – bringing it to the 21st Century. We were the first cross-over tenor act from Ireland and the only one that’s still together. We put that down to the fact that we were created not by a TV program or for fame but because we love music – and harmony.”
James, an ABBA and Meatloaf fan, is a lover of choral music. “I do most of the vocal arrangements and the others tweak around the notes. In Nanaimo we will be performing songs from our new album ‘Feels Like Home’, tenor standards like Nessum Dorma and Celtic Tenor favourites like Going Home, Remember Me, Red-Haired Mary, Westering Home, Danny Boy and many others.”
At this time in their career ‘home’ is where the heart is, on the road. “I bought my house in 2004 and I’ve been there only five months.” But being on the road is not just about concert touring. “When we aren’t singing we are busy with other commitments, like recordings, filming ‘Songs of Praise’ for BBC and last week a Titanic special singing Remember Me in the building in Belfast where the Titanic was designed.”
Harmony for Humanity
And the Celtic Tenors believe in harmony for humanity. “Years ago we wouldn’t have been on stage together. I’m Southern Irish Protestant from Sligo, Daryl is from Omagh in Northern Ireland, and Matthew is an Irish Catholic from County Meath. We each have different interests. Daryl set up the Omagh Community Youth Choir after the biggest single bombing atrocity in Northern Ireland, bringing Catholics and Protestants to sing together, promoting peace through music.”
James has his own project. “I’ve been going to Kenya once or twice a year to help raise funds for housing for children orphaned by AIDS. Aside from being part of the building team, building schools and accommodation, I teach music and do solo performances with the children but at the end of a verse I always look to the side for Daryl and Matthew. I’ve also done a CD with the children, some of whom have been child prostitutes or victims of machete massacres and are now going to high school and university. It’s humbling in the extreme.
“This has taught me to re-evaluate lyrics, like Bare Necessities. The song takes on whole new meaning. And Top of the World by the Carpenters. When asking the children why they are on top of the world, they reply, ‘I’m alive.’ Some of the children singAmazing Grace with their eyes closed. I get very emotional and have to leave the room – and cry. Lyrics are very important to me – every song has hidden meaning.”
The love of singing
James then spoke of his own childhood and love of singing. “At the age of three I sang a solo in a church. I cracked on a high note and got cold feet for singing. Instead I learned piano. Then while singing in a school choir a music teacher told me I was too loud. That also gave me a bad feeling. But by age 14, I started singing again, and later while studying for my bachelor degree in music I was asked to take a lead role in a rock opera. I was told I had a good voice but needed lessons. I went to a summer singing school in London, took private lessons from some incredible music teachers, and began an opera career in London. Eight years later in 1995 I was invited to do a one-off tribute concert to the Three Tenors as a member of the Three Irish Tenors. In 1999 we were asked to do 130 shows in Dublin (incredible for building stamina). Someone from EMI saw us and after an audition, EMI signed us up in 2000 for a record deal. It was then we became the Celtic Tenors.”
The Celtic Tenors
A Wee Review - Rosemary's Style - 2012
What an incredible experience - one I will not forget! I had the opportunity to travel to Cranbrook, in British Columbia, to catch The Celtic Tenors in action. Avalanche control on the Kootenay Pass (Salmo-Creston Summit) was over by early morning but the fresh snow and slush made driving slow and careful. I’m not the best winter driver, so I was immensely relieved to arrive in Cranbrook safely, check into the Elizabeth Lake Lodge, make supper and prepare for the concert.
|The Celtic Tenors
Daryl Simpson, Matthew Gilsenen, James Nelson
The Key Theatre was bursting with an excited and boisterous audience. The stage was set simply; three microphones, the grand piano, and a guitar. Silence, then introductions, and first on stage came musical director and pianist Colm Rogan, followed by Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson and Daryl Simpson. They presented a brilliant and entertaining program that featured popular and classical tunes interspersed with Celtic songs from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Classically trained voices, each distinctly different and unique when highlighted individually, blended together in perfect harmony and with such feeling. (I didn't take my note pad so I don't remember the titles of all the songs - besides, I was having too much of a good time and wasn't thinking of details!)
Between songs the four bantered between each other and with the audience. It was all so natural. Whereas some lines may have been scripted, the rest seemed totally in the moment, impulsive, unrehearsed, without pretense; humour with heart and soul. There were stories about the music, their lives, travels, and concerts on this recent Canadian tour. They had just driven from Saskatchewan by car and threw out jokes about the flat prairies while expressing their joy at seeing the great Canadian Rockies, visible from Alberta, and of course, seen anywhere in Cranbrook, a city surrounded by mountains. Their spontaneity was brilliant.
While their discourse was enchanting, I was there to hear The Celtic Tenors sing. To me the show was about the music, their voices, the songs, the incredible harmonies, Colm’s tickling of the ivories, Daryl’s guitar playing, and their heart-felt musical relationship between the members of the group and with the audience. At one point James, limping somewhat from a knee ailment, hobbled down into the audience with a huge red rose tucked behind his back, a big grin on his face, and sat beside an unsuspecting elderly lady, and sang to her. Later in the program, Matthew and Daryl had their turn and did likewise.
All the promotional material I had read before-hand was right on the mark. Believe it! The Celtic Tenors are sensitive, caring, and generous with their talents. They are seasoned performers, professionals, and yet they are the chap next door. And they show gratitude. I was completely surprised when, as Colm moved to pick up the guitar, James went over to the grand piano and dedicated a song to me as a thank you for the writing I had done for their concert in Nanaimo. The four performed ‘Wild Mountainside’, a very popular Scottish song written by John Douglas. I was brought to tears, not just for their gratitude but also for the amazing presentation of the song, the pure harmony, and the fact that coincidentally it is one of my own Scottish favourites. How did they know?
The concert closed with joyful and hilarious audience participation in ‘Nessum Dorma’; nothing like getting us common folk into joining in with the die-hard classics. Putting aside classical snobbery – this was FUN!
Music moves me, and their choice for the evening, mostly from their latest album ‘Feels Like Home’, definitely touched me deeply. I went from tears of laughter to tears of deep emotion, and as a result, removed what little make-up I had applied for the evening. In fact, their performances had touched all the audiences on this North American tour to the point they had no CDs left for folks to take home as a memento. “No matter,” the Tenors commented, “we will be in the lobby after the show to meet with everyone.” True to their word, after the standing ovations and a riotous encore, The Celtic Tenors headed to the lobby, stood talking with anyone who came to them, signed programs and in general, shared who they really are – wonderful human beings - doing what they love to do - and it shows!
If you have the opportunity to take in a Celtic Tenor concert – DO! - For the music, the brilliant tenor voices, the choice of songs, the harmony, for a touch of the Irish, laughter and warm fuzzy feelings of love.
Thank you James, Matthew, Daryl and Colm!
For the Celtic Tenors' formal biography, list of recordings, performance schedule, photos, videos and more visit The Celtic Tenor's web
And check out The Celtic Tenor's Facebook Page for up-to-date information, many videos, and some of James' incredible photos as they tour the world - like taking us all there with them.
NOTE: There are many more articles on this site about great musicians and artists - see Index of Articles.