Ancient Celtic melodies resonate for musicians of Ensemble Galilei

September 27, 1992|By Michael R. Driscoll | Michael R. Driscoll,Staff Writer

In a town like Annapolis, where people live and work among the daily reminders of a colonial past, a group of area musicians has looked a bit further back for their inspiration.

Known since 1990 as Ensemble Galilei, they are a group of musicians from Anne Arundel County and the Washington area who have just released their debut album, "Music from the Great Hall: Instrumental music from the ancient Celtic lands," on compact disk and cassette from the independent label Maggie's Music, owned by ensemble member Maggie Sansone of Annapolis.

Other members of the group are Washington-area residents Jim Brooks (recorders and percussion) and Marcia Diehl (recorders and penny whistle), Sue Richards of Rockville (three times U.S. national champion of Celtic harp), Carolyn Surrick of Crownsville (viola da gamba) and Ms. Sansone (hammered dulcimer).

They use a collection of these and other period instruments to play a mixture of classical music from the medieval and $l Renaissance periods, combined with the music of areas such as Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Brittany, and Galicia in Spain, that still maintain Celtic traditions.

The Celts were an ancient people who settled much of Europe and the British Isles before Roman times. They developed varied and dynamic cultures that have influenced much of Western culture. Traces of it still exist in some form, even today.

Bonnie Rideout (fiddle) of Alexandria, Va., another U.S. national champion, is a guest performer on the album. Educated at the University of Michigan, she has performed throughout North America and Europe with a variety of artists, including folk singer Pete Seeger and classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Both Mr. Brooks and Ms. Diehl are former members of Musica Antiqua and the Washington County Museum Recorder Consort. Surrick is a recent graduate of George Washington University with a degree in musicology.

The album was created from a series of performances recorded live at McDowall Hall on the grounds of St. John's College in Annapolis. Over the three years of the group's existence, this album is probably one of the most interesting concert albums of recent years from a local group. It was put together in response to repeated inquiries after the group's performances at St. John's. And since she had her own record label, Ms. Sansone remarked that "it was a perfect marriage."

Jim Bishop, vice president in charge of advancement at the college, has worked closely with the ensemble during its concerts at St. John's. "Judging from the response we've gotten to their concerts, people really must like it," he said.

Ms. Sansone, whose label sells throughout the United States, Great Britain, and now Japan, has seen two of her albums, "Mist and Stone," and "Sounds of the Season II" win national acclaim in 1990 for Best Albums of the Year from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors.

Ms. Sansone, one of the founding members of the group, describes the resulting blend as a "haunting and unique Celtic chamber folk sound, joining the elegance of chamber music and its intricate harmonies with the energy and excitement of traditional folk music. At the same time, it's a window on the past, a way to evoke musical images of the ancient Celts and bring them to life."

For the most part, the members of Ensemble Galilei consider the pursuit of this ancient music as a labor of love, but they agree with Ms. Sansone that the music still has something to say to the audiences of today.

"Its spirit of improvisation, and its liveliness, is very much like jazz," she said. "It's intellectually very stimulating, in a way that's been lost by popular music."

Asked what he enjoyed most about the ensemble, Mr. Brooks, who was classically trained, said "what attracts me is the variety of the music allows us to really expand ourselves. We do our own instrumentation, and play in a variety of styles. I like it, and I wouldn't want to do anything else."

Ms. Diehl agreed. Also classically trained, she said that "classical music, while it demands a great deal in talent and concentration, generally means that you essentially play what is front of you. The fact that the interpretation is up to the musician is very new to me, but that's what makes the music interesting."

To learn more about this and other albums from Maggie's Music write to the label at P.O. Box 4144, Annapolis, Md., 21402, or call 268-3394.

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