Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the August 6, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Down on the Farm: Irish Laments & Dances
When duo-guitarists Michael Newman and Laura Oltman
commissioned Arnold Black to write a piece for string quartet and
two guitars they also handed him a prescription: The piece had to
incorporate music by Turlough O’Carolan, a blind, itinerant Irish
harpist who lived from 1670 to 1738.
"Black was familiar with our playing and with the guitar,"
says Oltman in an interview from her home on the Delaware River south
of Lambertville. "We thought he would handle well the Irish material
that we wanted to include."
The 25-minute Black piece is part of Soclair Festival’s third offering
of the season, which takes place on Sunday, August 10, at 4 p.m. in
the Barn at Soclair Brooks Farm, Lebanon. The Soclair barn is on the
estate of June and Ira Kapp, in a wooded setting on rolling terrain
— ribbons won by champion horses still hang inside. Edward Brewer,
festival director, delights in the acoustics. "You don’t have
to do anything to tinker with an old wood building," he says.
"And the ceiling is high enough to give space to the sound"
(U.S. 1, September 5, 2001). The fourth and final Soclair concert,
a performance of baroque music led by Brewer takes place Sunday, September
Newman and Oltman share the August program with the string quartet
Ethel. Experienced performers, the members of Ethel devote themselves
to exploring new possibilities in string quartet music. Ethel plays
Marcelo Zarvos’ "Nepomuk’s Dances," Timor Amicopila’s "Pelimanni’s
Revenge," and Todd Reynolds’ "Uh — It all Happened So
Fast." Reynolds is a member of Ethel.
Newman and Oltman play relatively new French music for two guitars,
repeating a program they did at Tahiti’s Gauguin Musem to commemorate
the 100th anniversary of Gauguin’s death. After their separate performances,
the two groups join forces for Black’s commission, "Laments and
Dances from the Irish."
"Laments and Dances" is a five-movement piece, with most movements
having a fast-slow-fast pattern, Oltman says. "What Black found
fascinating about Irish music was that it’s either really happy or
really sad," she continues. "Black’s piece sounds really Irish.
People like Celtic music and this will be what they expect. It’s along
the lines of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and not just folk music. It’s
a real composition that sustains your attention."
Newman and Oltman have previously commissioned three pieces for guitar
and string quartet. "In the pieces that we commission, the guitar
is integrated into the musical fabric," says Oltman. "They’re
The duo-guitarists selected Black for the commission based on their
familiarity with its appealing qualities. "We heard a lot of his
music," Oltman says. "It’s tonal, not atonal; it’s not super-duper
abstract. We didn’t want the music so changed that you wouldn’t recognize
"We gave him a huge pile of O’Carolan tunes and, asked him to
use them. He was not so sure at first, but his wife, who is British,
talked him into it. She made him appreciate the possibilities. Once
he started working with the O’Carolan tunes he got more interested.
They’re hard to harmonize, since they’re modal." In other words,
the melodies come from musical fabrics that differ from the standard
major and minor scales we know best.
"Black’s writing was really good. He had written for guitar before
and we changed very little," Oltman says.
Oltman’s cousin was the catalyst who brought together the duo guitarists,
composer Black, and O’Carolan, the Irish harpist. "My cousin Sally
Rogers, a folk singer, had done records that included some O’Carolan
music. She said, `You should play his stuff.’ Folk singers take a
tune, and improvise a melody. If you’re playing classical music, you
have to have more of a composition there. I researched O’Carolan at
the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and found his
melodies. They had no accompaniments."
"O’Carolan was an itinerant harpist. He would stay with wealthy
families and write music about them. He was essentially recording
the family history. He was one of the last of the famous harpers.
The English were trying to stamp out this tradition. It was a type
of ethnic cleansing. They collected harps and burnt them; they wouldn’t
permit the speaking of Gaelic. Some wealthy Irish made a quick and
dirty effort to preserve what they could. It was an underground effort."
O’Carolan’s first piece, written when he was in his 20s, was an instant
success. Called "Si Beag, Si Mor" (and pronounced "She
beg, she mor"), it means "Big Island, Little Island" in
Gaelic. Oltman calls it "O’Carolan’s greatest hit." Composer
Black incorporated it into the last movement of his "Laments and
Dances." Oltman obligingly sings the haunting, modal melody into
Born in 1957, and raised in Detroit, Oltman says that
she started on guitar "by accident."
"I didn’t like guitar as a kid," she says. "I heard only
electric guitars. It was rock and roll. That’s how most people heard
guitar at the time." But peer pressure changed her mind. "When
I was about eight I had kid friends who listened to the Monkees on
TV. We pretended we had a rock band. We made drums out of cartons
and tambourines out of paper plates. We lip-synched to records and
invited our parents. We had a steel string guitar. It was too big;
we couldn’t press the strings down. But we pretended to play it. We
realized it wasn’t electric, so we thought it was a lame instrument."
"Later my brother and I ordered toy drums and a guitar from the
Sears catalog. My mother read the guitar instructions and learned
how to play `Red River Valley.’ Soon after, our band broke up and
I began teaching myself guitar on the Sears instrument."
Oltman’s involvement with the guitar accelerated after her father,
a patent attorney, moved the family to south Florida.
"There were lots of Cuban exiles there," she says. "My
mother saw an advertisement placed by a woman who taught classical
guitar. I had reached a point where I couldn’t learn much more on
my own. My mother thought I would like classical guitar because it
was more complicated than what I was playing." The sound of classical
guitar was already in Oltman’s ear from her parents’ collection of
Julian Bream records.
At the same time Oltman was developing an aversion to singing. "The
thing I really liked," she says, "was that classical guitar
was a solo instrument. You could play it by yourself and you didn’t
have to sing. If you learn guitar by the usual channels, you learn
the chords for pop songs and you sing. If you just play the chords
people can’t recognize the tune. There are so many more ways to arrange
the notes with classical guitar."
Classical guitar also overtook electric guitar in Oltman’s estimation
because it was an independent instrument. "With electric guitar
you learn little riffs," she says, "but you need a band. If
there’s not a good band, electric guitar is a dead end."
Oltman studied guitar at Florida State University in Tallahassee in
the mid 1970s. "Guitar programs were rare at the time," she
says, and Florida State had one of the best in the country. Oltman’s
teacher reached out beyond the university to train his students. And
he became an unwitting matchmaker when he invited a colleague from
his student days in New York to give a concert. That performer was
Newman and Oltman got to know each other at the Aspen
Music Festival the summer after Newman’s visit to Tallahassee. They
played duets. For a time they had a long distance relationship with
Oltman in Florida and Newman in New York. When Oltman went to graduate
school at Queens College the two got married. They played more duets,
and eventually turned their duo-playing into a 49-state five-continent
The duo is in residence at New York’s Mannes College of Music and
at LafayetteCollege. They founded and directed the New York Guitar
Seminar at Mannes, which took place in late June. In addition, Oltman
teaches at Princeton.
The Raritan River Festival, which they established, concluded its
14th season this year. Taking place on four weekends in May, it won
the national ASCAP/Chamber Music America Award for Adventurous Programming
in 1999. Newman and Oltman use the quality, non-profit series as a
platform for commissioning and for promoting educational activities.
Yet Oltman is frank about using the festival to advance their own
professional interests. "It’s an opportunity to perform music
that would be hard to do if we were not representing ourselves. Take
this year’s concert with Glen Velez, the percussionist. We probably
would not have been hired to do that. We control the festival and
we program collaborations that are very interesting to us. We like
to put guitar in a chamber music setting." Harpsichordist Edward
Brewer, Soclair’s music director, has appeared at the festival.
"Soclair is similar to the Raritan River Festival," says Oltman,
"but more private. It’s not as elaborate. When they include us
they’re going to get new music."
The new music that Newman and Oltman are bringing to Soclair "Laments
and Dances from the Irish" has ties to Oltman’s roots. Her Irish
paternal grandmother, Hazel Kelly, married into the Michigan family
that ran the Kelly Ice Cream company.
But you don’t have to be Irish to make connections to the Emerald
Isle. Anybody in the right place could have visited the Jeanie Johnston,
a replica of an Irish immigrant sailing ship that turned up in New
Jersey waters in late June and early July (U.S. 1 June 25). All listeners
were welcome at John Buckhalter and Eugene Roan’s harpsichord and
recorder program of music from 18th century Dublin at Westminster
Choir College last month. And if there’s enough space in the barn,
you can give a listen to Irish tunes brought up-to-date at Soclair
on August 10. If it’s Irish in New Jersey, it’s not necessarily St.
— Elaine Strauss
Soclair Brooks Farm, 19 Haytown Road, Lebanon, 908-236-6476. Guitar
duo Michael Newman and Laura Oltman with the classical string quartet
Ethel for a program featuring laments and dances by Arnold Black.
$20. Sunday, August 10, 4 p.m.
Preceding the concert at 2:30 p.m., Paul Somers, director of the Classical
New Jersey Society, gives a series of classes, "Everything You
Always Wanted to Know About Classical Music but Were Afraid to Ask."
Anonymous questions may be submitted in advance; class fee is $1
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.