Seasons Change

Solstice-themed concert features old songs and new talent

Suited up for the Solstice
Celebrated Celtic fiddler Jamie Laval.
Portrait by Karin Strickland

Celtic fiddler Jamie Laval changes certain components of his holiday concert every season, but the shows are always in step with his musical travels of the previous months. This past summer, Laval, who lives in Tryon, was on the faculty of two fiddle camps. One was in Charlotte, led by fellow fiddler Mark O’Connor; the other was the Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle Camp.

Laval explains that O’Connor’s approach is “to champion American-style folk music rather than falling back on the European model.” And Laval applied his Celtic grounding to that context, creating a richer experience for the students. 

The Boston Harbor program found Laval in nearly the opposite situation. “I was the only American teacher,” he says. “All the others were Scottish.” So Laval — who won the U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Championship in 2002 — brought an American perspective to the proceedings.

What he took away from both was a renewed appreciation for the passion and potential of young musicians. “Something about the fiddle-camp environment just draws these remarkable, special people who are really perceptive about music and about life — very motivated for learning and for all things, and just so genuine and good people,” he says. “It was just really heartwarming.”

“Heartwarming” is a word that always applies to Laval’s “Celtic Christmas” program, no matter the mix of performers. Focused on presenting a rare mix of old songs and stories, Laval laughs when he says, “We’re not ever going to do ‘Frosty the Snowman’ or anything commercial.” Instead, Laval draws from ancient traditions that celebrate not only the Christian holiday but observe the changing of the seasons, Solstice, and the renewal represented by the ringing in of the new year.

The show has very limited engagements: In addition to the date at Tryon Fine Arts Center, it travels to only three regional cities: Asheville, Charlotte, and a final performance in Cary on Dec. 30. Laval’s program is steeped in Celtic culture, something that has both a wide appeal and a particular Appalachian resonance. “We’ve got this ancient music and we’ve got poems that talk about the changing seasons and about nature; there’s this idea of a throwback to days of old,” he says. But because young people continue to take up the ancient music, it also feels fresh and modern. Laval talks about the “special instrumentation” brought by this year’s five guest performers, including Eamon Sefton of Boston — a twenty-something Berklee College of Music alum he describes as “a monster guitarist.”

Laval’s programs are lively affairs that make attendees “want to just squirm in their seats,” he says — “[to] get up and dance and party.” But they’re also meant to educate. The choreography has a vivid multimedia component. One musical number has as its backdrop the Standing Stones of Callanish, a cruciform stone arrangement in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides that dates to the Bronze Age. The images “take us back to the early Celtic peoples, to village life when things were simpler, families and communities were tighter,” Laval says.

Three members of Laval’s team are situated backstage to make all of the effects work smoothly, leaving the onstage performers to dazzle the audience with song and dance.

It might seem paradoxical, but Laval believes that his program “achieves a cozy and inviting atmosphere using more technology.”

“Jamie Laval’s Celtic Christmas: Music and Stories for the Deep Midwinter” happens Friday, Dec. 27, 7:30-9:30pm, at the Tryon Fine Arts Center (34 Melrose Ave.). $35-$40. For more information, call 828-859-8322 or see tryonarts.org

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