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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

7.

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

not concertos."

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

it."

"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

the telephone.

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

Michael Newman.

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

career.

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.

Patrick’s day.

— Elaine Strauss

Laura Oltman and Michael Newman, Soclair Music Festival,

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


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