"Ireland's answer to the Kingston Trio" is how conductor Harold Gottfredson introduced Barley Bree on the Utah Symphony's annual St. Patrick's Day concert - here about six days ahead of schedule - Monday at Symphony Hall. And he wasn't that far from the truth.
As the name ("brew of the barley") suggests, here was the same mildly irreverent let's-have-a-good-time attitude that marks that group, with the added tang of an Irish brogue, a fiddle and occasionally a penny whistle mixed in with the banjo and guitars.With Tom Sweeney handling the stage patter, and the bulk of the lead vocals, songs ranged from the traditional ("The Wild Colonial Boy," "Galway Races") to the modern ("Hand Me Down My Jogging Shoes" - would you believe an anti-jogging song?), spiced with alternate dollops of wit, sentiment and, where appropriate, solemnity.
"We used to say the only good thing that ever left County Donegal," said Sweeney in introducing younger brother Jimmy and violinist P.V. O'Donnell (who hails from the latter), "was the bus for County Tyrone." But that kind of friendly enmity was forgotten amid the elder Sweeney's "Anthem for the Children," a plea for peace and justice for both Irelands.
The audience may not have done its fair share by the one sing-along on the program, "The Whistling Gypsy Rover" (with Tom on tin flute). But the orchestra enhanced the poignancy of the prison-colony song "The Fields of Athenry" (here in an arrangement by Utah's own Merrill Jensen) as well as the trio's spirited "Salute to the Clancy Brothers," in which the lullaby "The Castle of Dramore" was framed by the sparkling verve of "The Irish Rover" and "Courtin' in the Kitchen," a longtime Clancy favorite.
Otherwise it was Barley Bree that provided the zest, at least after a first half that, to these ears, seemed a little on the heavy side.
From the beginning of these concerts - can it really have been 11 years ago? - Gottfredson has pretty much kept to his vow of "no plastic shamrocks." That has meant sparing helpings of even the likes of Leroy Anderson in favor of authentic music direct from the Emerald Isle.
This year, however, about the only familiar tunes were an overly tricky arrangement of "Garry Owen" (with a nod to G.A. Custer), "The Coolin" (here dedicated to Gottfredson's own "beautiful maiden from County Donegal," his wife Clyde) and the occasional jigs, marches and anthems that worked their way into a lengthy selection from the film music of Sean O'Riada.
The orchestra made the most of its opportunities, however, from the muted snares and trumpet fanfares of Victory's "Salute to the President of Ireland" - something of a miniature tone poem - to the piccolo, flute and harp spicings that animated much of what followed. Ditto the four colleens from the McTeggart Irish Dancers, whose straight-backed prancing on both halves embodied the color, the energy and, yes, the dignity of the Irish spirit.
Again, though, if you like your spirits semi-straight, I recommend the Sweeney brothers and their pal P.V.