Usually, when a singer sings a song he gets it into his head and it comes out of his mouth," says James Gafgen, artistic director of the second "Irish Music Extravaganza," which takes place at Trenton’s War Memorial, Sunday, November 9 at 7 p.m. "With Tom McCloskey after it gets into his head, it travels out through his heart. Irish material is 99 percent heart. McCloskey is a true Irish tenor."
McCloskey is one of four tenors in the show. The others are Billy Briggs, Bill O’Neal, and Gafgen, who, in addition to his directorial skills, is a trained vocalist with extensive performing experience. The single non-tenor is soprano Barbara Wayman, Gafgen’s fiancee and partner in a firm that assembles professional concert programs designed to raise funds for charities.
The Trenton and Bristol units of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), the oldest Catholic lay organization in America, sponsor the concert. They have selected six charities to benefit from the event: Anchor House, Angels Wings, the Pat Finucane Center, Relatives for Justice, Project Children, and the Hibernian Hunger Project. The late Earl Jeffries of Bristol, Pennsylvania, founded the Hibernian Hunger Project and played a major role in the first Irish Music Extravaganza. Last year the Hunger project fed 6,500 people. In Jeffries’ memory, the audience is encouraged to bring non-perishable food items to drop-off containers at this year’s War Memorial event.
"Basically, the show is ballad-based," says Gafgen in a telephone interview. "It’s all English. There’s no Gaelic. We don’t want to sing just gems of 1900. We want to be up-to-date. There will be traditional songs plus modern material."
"`Danny Boy,’ that’s a given," Gafgen says. "Danny Boy," the melancholy ballad that symbolizes Irish singing, is the subject of a recent book by Malachy McCourt. The program includes a generous helping of ballads by legendary Irish tenor John McCormack, who dominated the operatic world early in the 20th century. It opens with his "Go, Lassie Go," in a fresh arrangement; Gafgen calls the piece "a funny song about Irish guys pursuing Irish girls."
"The show has a balance of love duets, comedy, and heavier songs," Gafgen says. "There will be patriotic pieces, not about fighting, but about loving the land; songs about an appreciation for the rolling hills of Ireland, the ocean, and cockles and mussels, something like `God Bless America.’"
Some of the material deals with recent events. "The Town that I Loved so Well," for instance, a piece performed by soprano Wayman, looks back to a childhood in a recently-devastated community, and needs no re-working to bring it up-to-date.
Orchestration and new arrangements of the material can be used to modernize traditional pieces, says Gafgen. Responsible for the reworking are Jerry Nowak and Bill Zaccagni.
A 30-instrument ensemble, conducted by Nowak, plays for the program, which is preponderantly vocal. Gafgen calls the group "an augmented orchestra" because it includes brass, woodwinds, and percussion, in addition to strings. Nowak is a Flemington resident. The instrumentalists reside in New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia.
The performance includes brief appearances by step dancers and bagpipers. The gravity-defying dancers perform to live music by the orchestra. The bagpipers appear independently. "They roam while they play," says Gafgen, "and make traditional Irish formations."
Performers are neither necessarily Irish, nor necessarily Catholic. "They are a melting pot of faiths," says Gafgen. "Fifty percent of all the players in the musicians’ union are Italian. Plus, there are Asians. The concert is about the beauty of the music."
Now in his 30s, Gafgen says that his heritage includes "a little splatter of Irish." He was born in Trenton and grew up in Bucks County. After earning a teaching degree at Pennsylvania’s West Chester University, where he majored in health, he studied singing privately at New York’s Mannes School of Music with Louise Caselotti, the teacher of Maria Callas.
Gafgen’s father, whose name is also James, was head of the sculpture department at the Johnson Atelier in Hamilton until his retirement. Gafgen’s mother is a retired laboratory technician. The couple lives in Morrisville, Pennsylvania. Gafgen’s sister, Lisa-Ann, works with mosaics. One of Gafgen’s grandfathers was a violinist.
In 1996, Gafgen toured in Ireland with "Voices in Praise," a Christian singing group. Their performances in some five European countries left no time for tourism.
Gafgen’s commitment to the Irish Extravaganza grows from the production company that Barbara Wayman formed in 1996 to put together shows intended to raise funds for charities. Gafgen and Wayman met when he played Tamino in Mozart’s "Magic Flute" and she played the "Queen of the Night" in 1993. "She sings like a beautiful lark," Gafgen says. At the genesis of the production company, Gafgen and Wayman Productions, the two decided to perform together. The Irish Extravaganza is a typical of their shows.
Gafgen and Wayman take on separate assignments for the enterprise. "She knows how to promote performances, and how to handle technical things," Gafgen says. The company’s first project was raising funds for Internet wiring in the Hamilton School district. "We raised $10,000," Gafgen proudly says. "Within a few days, with the help of realtor Bob Barrett, we sold out Hamilton High School for our performance."
"I enjoy being part of a team with Barbara," says Gafgen, who makes no secret of his admiration for Wayman’s prowess. "She’s invented a technique for using Power Point and choreographing photos and videos so they coordinate with what the performer on stage is singing. Illuminating the back of the War Memorial like that makes it gorgeous." He promises that Wayman, who has been present the whole time, will come to the phone after he is finished.
"I take care of contracting musicians and deciding who should arrange the music," Gafgen says. "My job is to know what kind of material is handled best by particular arrangers. Some are great for marches; others for jazz or pop or ethnic music. That’s step one. Then I decide on the instrumentation for a particular event. The instrumentation differs if it’s Irish or Italian or something else. Then the singer comes into the mix. It’s like getting a custom-made suit. It costs hundreds of dollars per song, on the average. Sometimes, if you ask an arranger for several songs, the cost goes down per song. But you get what you pay for."
"This production company is a $100,000 investment," Gafgen says. "We need gear for outdoors and for indoors. We need equipment for operatic performances, and for theatrical performances. We’ve paid for the musical arrangements for all the shows we’ve done to date, for a sound system, and for Power Point projects."
Gafgen turns over the phone to Wayman and, with no time wasted, she delivers a broadly-sketched biography. Half Irish and half German, she grew up in Lawrenceville and won a voice scholarship at Muhlenberg College, where she studied economics and English, in addition to music. She has a degree in computer technology from Chubb in North Brunswick.
"Jim and I are the same age," she says. The two were engaged to be married about a month ago. The target time for the wedding is spring of 2005.
"I’m the visionary," Wayman says. "Our purpose is to put together a black tie event that we can scale up or down. Usually there’s a 20-piece orchestra. But for the Irish Extravaganza there are close to 30 instruments. We customize our projects for the particular organization. In this case, it’s the Ancient Order of Hibernians."
The American Hibernians were founded in New York and Philadelphia in 1836. Their motto is "Brotherhood, Friendship, Unity, and Christian Charity." Mike McCormack, Ancient Order of Hibernians’ (AOH) National Historian, in a posting on the organization’s website, writes that Hibernian Halls across the country have traditionally welcomed new immigrants. "Here," he says, "the unique art, dance, music, and other interests of the Irish are fostered and preserved, making the AOH Hall a home away from home for many. The group can always be found actively lobbying for, praying for, and working for the total independence of a united 32-county Ireland — by all means constitutional and lawful." At present the 26 counties in the Irish Republic belong to the European Community and use Euros, while the six counties of Northern Ireland are part of Great Britain and use sterling.
The AOH participated in bringing to the United States the Jeanie Johnston, a replica sailing ship that called at more than a dozen east coast ports, including Philadelphia, Bristol, and New York City in the summer of 2003. The vessel replicated the so-called "famine ships" or "coffin ships" that left Ireland for America after the failure of the potato crop in the 1840s. Fleeing hunger and poverty, Irish immigrants vied for places on such ships.
The AOH, more than 300 years old, was formed in an Ireland struggling to keep alive Irish Catholic civilization in the face of an organized legal effort to wipe it out. In 1695 Protestant authorities’ adopted a body of laws known as "The Penal Code" in overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland. Among the code’s most dramatic provisions were its prohibition of the practice of Catholicism, and its precluding Catholics from being educated, entering a profession, owning or leasing land, or owning a horse worth more than five pounds.
With Irish civilization and economic well-being officially banned in the 18th century, Irish Catholics had few ways to express themselves. There remained, however the singing of friends, often in lamentation, and the cultivation of a generous spirit and a big heart.
Irish Music Extravaganza, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial , West Lafayette Street, Trenton, 609-984-8400. The second annual Irish music extravaganza presented by the Ancient Order of Hibernians with singers Billy Briggs, Jim Gafgen, Tom McCloskey, Bill O’Neal, and Barbara Wayman, plus bagpipers, step dancers, and a world-class orchestra. $25, $35, $50. Sunday, November 9, 7 p.m.