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2007-04-11 Celtic Tenors engineer North American success

Joanne Paulson, The StarPhoenix


They may be from the lush Emerald Isle, but a Canadian has taken a direct role in their success.


The Celtic Tenors, like so many acts, have had their lovely ups and rotten downs, said Matthew Gilsenan on the telephone from a canyon in Utah.

"We've had really bad experiences with agencies in the U.S. and Canada," he says, without providing details. "Most bands would have stopped.

"We had one thing going for us; we really love what we do."


The Celtic Tenors were hanging in there, when two and a half years ago, their fortunes changed.


"We got a superb agent, S.L. Feldman from Canada. They opened up the whole North America for us; that success bred success in other parts of the world. Canada has a real resonance for us."


While they are "kind of biggish in Ireland," it took some time -- and a heart-warming coincidence -- to get things going in North America.


A Canadian woman called Alice Miller was passing through Dublin on her way back home, where she picked up a Celtic Tenors CD. Unfortunately, she was not well; she learned soon after that she was dying of cancer.


"It was her dying wish that we might come and sing for (her) family. She wanted to introduce us to Canada. We came and did a show in a town on the outskirts of Toronto," says Gilsenan, wracking his brains for the name of the town, but not coming up with it. "Then we did it the next year. And we met the family, and they were all so lovely.


"It so happened that Richard Mills lived in that town. He just came to the show, and our lives changed."


Mills is the Feldman agent for The Celtic Tenors. They have been touring the U.S. since the beginning of March, and had their last show there last Tuesday night, before heading for Canada.


"It's been great. We've been having great houses, we've been in nice venues. We're kind of growing gradually in the United States."


Indeed, where they used to attract 250 to 400 people, they are now singing to houses of 2,000. While the tenors have done a mini-tour in Eastern Canada, and have appeared in B.C., this will be their first time in Saskatoon.


"There's a really different sort of vibe in Canada. I think people are much less impressed by what's on TV, or that sort of thing," said Gilsenan. "Our experiences in Canada have been lovely, so far.


"The crowds were wonderful. We had some great shows. I can't tell you how much we're looking forward to all of this again."


Gilsenan joins James Nelson, who discovered him, and Daryl Simpson in the group. Gilsenan has been singing since childhood, but he's also an engineer.


"I suppose I'll always be an engineer. I'm kind of an engineer at heart. My dad's an engineer and I grew up on a farm -- a typical Irish farm where every day something else is broken. Growing up with that gave me a great love for creating things."


Once at university, he studied music as well as engineering. He started singing publicly and winning competitions, but ended up working with a food machinery company. Then he got sidelined into designing high-powered microwaves.

That took me all over the world. Nabisco and tons of large companies got involved, and suddenly I was doing a really interesting job.


"It lasted about five years, and then the project came to an end."


A friend of his from Algeria intervened, telling him he should take a chance and try to sing professionally.


"He said 'My friend, it is a much greater risk not to take this risk. Just take six months, see if it works.' "


Gilsenan took the risk, but was just about ready to return to an engineering job when Nelson spotted him. Gilsenan joined Nelson's group of tenors for a successful run in Ireland; and they suddenly found themselves at eight o'clock one morning, singing in the boardroom at EMI in London.

They landed a three-album deal on the spot.


Now they're touring quite relentlessly, with a combination of Irish songs and pop tunes (such as Air Supply's All out of Love). The hardest part for Gilsenan is missing his wife, four-year-old son and six-month-old daughter.

On the bright side, Gilsenan raves about touring with their accompanist and musical manager David Munro; and Gilsenan's sister Deirdre Shannon, a soprano and quite a star in her own right.


Then there are the crowds, which always demand Danny Boy.


"They're screaming Danny Boy at the end. We have a version of Danny Boy . . . we stripped away the sentimentalization. A three-part harmony version. We love singing it; when you find someting you really love singing it gets the response that you wish for.


"If there's a good acoustic in the room, we will usually do Danny Boy at the very, very end. We keep the audience waiting with bated breath."