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2006-03-09 Take 30

From the Erie Times News


'Hey, we might just have something here': Celtic Tenors began by getting together and working on their harmonies.


Some might call it the luck of the Irish, while others would point out that luck is simply the residue of design. Either way, Niall Morris and his fellow Celtic Tenors feel extraordinarily fortunate these days. Their fame and fortune is growing, thanks largely to the warm reception they're receiving in North America. Morris, Matthew Gilsenan, and James Nelson are old friends who, about six years ago, began gathering informally at Gilsenan's Dublin home to work on their harmonies.

The Irishmen, all in their 30s, are formally trained vocalists who for years studied opera and other long-haired music. Each was an accomplished classical musician in his own right, racking up successful performances in productions around the globe.


Yet it was in these impromptu sessions at Gilsenan's house that the beauty of their voices -- three skilled tenors combining in rich harmony --reached glorious new heights. They said to themselves, "Hey, we might just have something here."

And well they did. Following one brief audition in London, they signed an international record deal with EMI. Within a few months, the Celtic Tenors' first album soared to No. 2 on the classical charts in Britain. It would also reach No. 1 in Ireland and Germany.


Suddenly, they were as hot as fellow musical countrymen Ronan Tynan, John McDermott, and even those Irish rockers who regularly packed the huge auditoriums and stadiums in America. You know, Bono, the Edge and that group.

"Truth is, Ireland's not such a big place," said Morris by phone during a recent break in the Tenors' hectic touring schedule. "We all know each other, and it's fair to say that we enjoy each others' company. We like to hang out together."

Before the Celtic Tenors perform Friday at 8 p.m. at Mercyhurst College's D'Angelo Center, they'll gather informally tonight at Molly Brannigans Irish Pub and Restaurant. You might call it one of their "hanging out" sessions.

Always glad to do their part for charity, the Tenors will go behind the bar along with other celebrity bartenders to serve up some Guinness and Harp, with the proceeds going to WQLN.


"I imagine we'll sing a tune or two,"the genial Morris said. "Now tell me, is it still winter in your part of Pennsylvania?"


'Tis, I told him, but the Celtic Tenors are certain to feel warmth within the close embrace of their fans at Brannigans and Mercyhurst.


"When I went to Chautauqua Institution last summer to watch them sing,"said Michael Fuhrman, who runs the D'Angelo Center, "I didn't know what to expect."

The Celtic Tenors were opening for Air Supply, but it soon became clear that these guys were the stars. They far outshone the main act."When they sang 'Danny Boy,' I swear there wasn't a dry eye in the house,"Fuhrman said. He signed them on the spot.


"Funny thing about 'Danny Boy,'"Morris said. "It really wasn't part of our repertoire. James had worked up a musical sketch of it, and we sang it for your former President Clinton at Dublin Castle at his request." Clinton, who was appearing at the castle to raise money for the Northern Ireland Peace Fund, motioned for the Tenors to come close to his table as they launched into "Danny Boy."


"We're singing to him -- about four feet away -- and his eyes locked with ours. The man has such astonishing charisma that I had to concentrate hard to keep singing," Morris said. "Anyway, as we hit the high notes, great tears welled in his eyes. Later, after we finished, he invited us to sit with him at his table."

After a few minutes, Clinton asked the Tenors if there was a private room where they might repair for a minute or two. "As he closed the doors behind him, Mr. Clinton asked if we could sing 'Danny Boy' again, and this time he would to sing it with us," Morris said. So there they stood, the four of them, arms draped around each other, singing loud and soulfully.


"I think we sang it a couple of times," Morris said. "Not only was it a great night, but Clinton must have told a million people about us and how the Celtic Tenors sang the greatest 'Danny Boy' he'd ever heard."


Part of the Tenors' appeal, besides their wonderful voices, is their personality and engaging patter onstage.


"We start chatting -- the three of us -- when we're up there, and being Irish, I suppose we have a natural insouciance,"Morris said.


Many people find their casual approach to life appealing.


"Sometimes, amusing things tumble out of our mouths, which the audiences seem to enjoy," he said. As the reputation of Morris, Gilsenan, and Nelson began to expand, they became a huge hit across Europe. The Tenors even starred in their own TV show in Germany.


Then came a successful tour across North America. "There's no fame like fame in this country," Morris said. "Once it starts to happen for you here, it opens up all over -- and it's such an amazingly large continent."


The Tenors sound like prudent managers of their success. Morris, who still writes travel columns for a Dublin newspaper, stresses that they try not to overextend themselves. For instance, he said he's thinking about moving here for half the year.

"New York is a wonderful place, with so much happening all the time, but I have fallen in love with your West Coast," he said. "It's all that sun and warmth. For an Irishman who's lived in a place where it rains 70 percent of the time, sunny weather is like a dream."


I cautioned Morris that he likely wouldn't find much balmy weather here, not in March anyway. But he seemed undaunted. When the Celtic Tenors visit your community -- especially this close to St. Patrick's Day -- they always bring a dose of spring and sunshine. Just open your ears and listen for it.