The Pipes of Christmas

Currie HeadshotThough quick to defer credit, “The Pipes of Christmas” founder and organizer Bob Currie isn’t shy to share about one his Clan’s many signature events. In the first of an exclusive two-part interview, Currie opens up about himself and this weekend’s event in New York City.

What are your own roots?
I am Scottish on my father’s side and French Canadian on my mother’s side. All my grandparents were born in Canada. I have had great success tracing my Currie ancestry back to the Isle of Arran off the coast of Scotland. My great-great- grandfather, Neill Currie immigrated to Aylmer, Quebec during the Arran Clearances in 1828. He left behind an invaluable and inspiring autobiography entitled, The Religious Experience of Neill Currie, published in Bytown (Ottawa) in 1846. Before first setting foot in Scotland over 30 years ago, my childhood summers were  spent camping in Ontario and Quebec in some wonderful Provincial Parks.

What inspired you to create “The Pipes of Christmas”?
The Clan Currie Society had been producing a very popular Kirking of the Tartans service for several years. In the early ’90’s when I discovered PM Kevin Blandford’s beautiful CDs entitled, “The Pipes of Christmas” and “Amazing Grace,” I immediately signed Blandford to bring his exceptional piping and arranging skills to our Kirking services. Over time, Blandford and I pondered what a live concert version of his Christmas CD might look and sound like. Building on that CD, we moved away from the annual Kirking service and debuted the re-imagined “live” “Pipes of Christmas” concert on December 11, 1999. I expanded Blandford’s repertoire to go beyond just pipe, organ and brass and added clarsach, fiddle, uilleann pipes, guitar and cello. The presentation was extremely well received. Our first concert attracted over 800 for a hall that could only seat 700. It was incredible!

Are they the same reasons you continue to put it together each year?
We are blessed with a very loyal audience that I suspect would be upset if we didn’t bring the “Pipes” back every year. It truly has become part of their Christmas tradition and we take that endorsement very seriously. Christmas is a time of giving and in that spirit, we are fortunate to be able to use concert proceeds to bestow a number of annual music and history scholarships at many leading institutions including the Gaelic College in Nova Scotia, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the National Piping Centre, both in Glasgow, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye and Lyon College in Arkansas. We’ve also used the concert as a platform to showcase new composers and aim towards having at least one or two new compositions debut each year. We also use the concert as one of our many platforms to showcase the Gaelic language through some truly lovely Gaelic carols. We donate tickets to local charities so they can be used in their own fundraising efforts. To date we’ve supported over 20 deserving non-profits in this manner like the American Red Cross and the Children’s Aid Society of New York.

What are the challenges involved?
Like any major annual arts event, I suspect we share some the same challenges as other large-scale programs. Securing sponsors can be a challenge during tough economic times and ticket prices alone don’t provide all the funding we require. Over the years we’ve been blessed with some wonderful sponsors that have contributed greatly to our success while also ensuring that we can maintain our high production standards. This year, we are delighted to have as our Title Sponsors, Edinburgh Napier University, Royal Bank of Canada Capital Markets and the Grand Summit Hotel. We are so grateful for their support! We like to vary the program from year to year (while keeping our core intact). This means you’ll likely find me listening to Christmas music starting in February each year. We’re also always on the look for new artists and composers to showcase.

What are the rewards?
The rewards are substantial and inspiring. The audience reaction to this program keeps me energized and engaged. For some, the concert becomes their Christmas celebration, opting to gather family and friends for “Pipes” before they travel back to their respective homes just a week later for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. One patron just purchased a block of 50 tickets for his entire family! There is a strong Sacred element to our concert. Hearing “O Come All Ye Faithful” performed on pipe, organ and brass is nothing short of majestic. Contrasted with “Silent Night” sung in Scots Gaelic accompanied by clarsach, fiddle and guitar, is soul stirring. One patron described the concert as his vision for what the “finest Christmas Eve service would look and sound like at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.” Bringing new music to life is extremely satisfying. Last year, we were compelled to honor the life and Scottish ancestry of astronaut Neil Armstrong who had died in August. I retained a brilliant young Scottish composer named James Ross of Wick, to compose a new chamber piece entitled, “Sea of Tranquility.” The piece was beautiful. We had the honor of performing the work for Neil Armstrong’s daughter at our NY concert. It’s one of many “Pipes” moments I shall never forget. We also marked HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee last year with a lovely new tune by Inverness-born Steve Gibb entitled, “Balmoral Snow.” In years past, we’ve debuted other new works including, “Lament for the Lost,” which was composed by PM Kevin Blandford on September 11, 2001 as he watched the tragedies unfold in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. Of course, the other great reward for me personally is the opportunity to work with some truly outstanding performers. In addition to the Kevin Ray Blandford Memorial Pipe Band from Redlands, CA, we also host Gaelic Mod champion clarsach performer Jennifer Port originally from Golspie, Scotland, guitarist/composer Steve Gibb (now on Broadway with “Jersey Boys”), concert violinist and three-time New England fiddle champion Paul Woodiel, uilleann piper Christopher Layer and one of the leading interpreters of Scottish Country Dance music, Susie Petrov as well as an entire company of top music industry professionals. I am honored and humbled to have this wonderful ensemble perform for our audiences year after year. The concert’s narration, masterfully written and delivered by Susan Porterfield Currie is the glue that connects the musical selections and brings insight into the holiday traditions of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Beyond that, I must admit that receiving a standing ovation for our debut concert in NYC (at the end of the first act, no less!) was especially rewarding. Before he passed away from cancer at the much too early age of 43 in 2003, Pipe Major Blandford and I had always wondered how the Big Apple would respond to the concert. Sadly, Kevin didn’t live to see this, but I’m certain he was there with us in spirit on that first NY performance. We’ve since been named as one of New York’s “Top Ten” holiday events.

Read part two tomorrow!