By Rosemary Phillips
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 March 22, in a benefit concert for the Vancouver Island Symphony.
Three classically-trained Irish tenor voices, Matthew Gilsenan (the more pop style), James Nelson (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 and sung for world leaders.
“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,” said Nelson. “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.”
And the Celtic Tenors believe in harmony for humanity.
“Years ago we wouldn’t have been on stage together,” Nelson said. “I’m Southern Irish Protestant from Sligo, Daryl is from Omagh in Northern Ireland, and Matthew is an Irish Catholic from County Meath.
“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.”
Nelson has his own project, travelling to Kenya once or twice a year to help raise money 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,” Nelson said. “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.”
The songs the children sing, like Bare Necessities, from The Jungle Book, and Top of the World, by the Carpenters, caused Nelson to re-evaluate the message in the lyrics.
“When asking the children why they are on top of the world, they reply, ‘I’m alive.’ Some of the children sing Amazing 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.”
Neson learned to love to sing as a child as well, persisting despite some negative events along the way.
He began singing in church at age three, but after cracking on a high note he got cold feet and took up the piano instead. Later while singing in a school choir, a music teacher told him he sang too loud.
By age 14, he was singing again, and while studying for a bachelor’s degree in music, he was asked to take a lead role in a rock opera.
“I was told I had a good voice but needed lessons,” Nelson said.
A summer singing school in London and private lessons from “incredible” music teachers and Nelson began an opera career.
Eight years later, he was invited to perform in a one-time tribute concert to The Three Tenors, which led to a series of 130 shows in Dublin as the Three Irish Tenors. A record deal in 2000 led to the trio becoming The Celtic Tenors.
Nelson, who also does most of the vocal arrangements for the group, said the trio will perform songs from its new album Feels Like Home, tenor standards and Celtic favourites like Going Home, Red-Haired Mary and Danny Boy.
The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, please call 250-754-8550 or visit www.porttheatre.com.