THE PIPES OF CHRISTMAS
Though quick to defer credit, The Pipes of Christmas founder and organizer Robert Currie isn’t shy to share about one of his Clan’s many signature events.
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 clàrsach, 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, Edinburgh Napier University in Edinburgh, 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, the British Soldiers Fund 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 and the Grand Summit Hotel with additional support from Investors Bank, Walkers Shortbread and the Classic Malts of Scotland. 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 75 (yes, that’s not a typo – 75!) 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 clàrsach, 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.” We also recently released our first CD, “The Best of the Pipes of Christmas.” This CD, featuring some of our absolute best musical moments from 1999-2012 has already sold over a thousand copies. 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 from Golspie, Scotland, guitarist/composer Steve Gibb (now on Broadway with “Jersey Boys”) originally from Inverness, Scotland, 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. This year we also get to host a reunion of actors from Mel Gibson’s Academy Award winning film, “Braveheart” as well. 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, further enhanced by our outstanding Readers. 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 40 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.
What is the event’s core mandate, and who does it benefit?
Our principal mandate is to produce a world-class concert event which honors our Celtic heritage and faith. Too many events with all the best intentions can fall victim to the doctrine of “good enough.” Quite the opposite, we constantly strive to be the best we can be. You never know who may be experiencing their Celtic heritage for the first time at “The Pipes of Christmas.” We have an obligation to strive for excellence in all that we do. The same is true for our commitment to educational scholarships and our special events and sponsorships. If we don’t do all we can to protect and preserve our heritage, who will? So our audiences remain our primary responsibility. In addition to operating as a traditional clan society, the Clan Currie Society is also an international arts organization. We honor our clan’s Bardic roots. Clan Currie (or Clan MacMhuirich as they were known in Gaelic) was the pre-eminent Bardic Dynasty in Scotland for over 700 years. We strive to keep our rich arts tradition alive in everything we do. Through programs like “The Pipes of Christmas,” we get to demonstrate that commitment and generate a financial base that supports all our programs, which are intended for the general public as well as for our clans-folk. In addition to the “Pipes” and the resulting scholarships, we also produce Tartan Day on Ellis Island (one of the anchor programs of NY Tartan Week,) an annual Academic Symposium, and a number of Scottish harp events from coast-to-coast. In fact, we are the Title Sponsor for the Scottish Harp Society of America’s national championship. We also sponsor the Young Gaelic Writer’s Literature Award at the Royal National Mod – Scotland’s national Gaelic competition. We keep pretty busy.
Who attends the event?
I’m always amazed to see where our audience hails from. When we first started in 1999, we generally drew from central New Jersey with occasional visitors from New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware – especially as the word got out. Since moving to Manhattan, we’ve added all five boroughs of NYC, along with Long Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Since NYC is an international travel destination, especially during the magical holiday season, we now play host to patrons from quite literally all around the world.
What can audiences expect this year?
For our 17th anniversary, we’re delighted to be debuting two new compositions as well as the return of many of our audience favorites. One of our anticipated premieres will be a new composition from a music student studying at Edinburgh Napier University. Through a generous gift from acclaimed author Alexander McCall Smith, the university has awarded a cash prize to James Hind of Edinburgh, Scotland. Hind is also the recipient of our inaugural scholarship for music composition. We’re delighted to have James with us for his premiere in New York and New Jersey. Last but not least, we are honored to have two wonderful Honorary Chairs in film and television composer, Bear McCreary best known in our community for his work on the hit STARZ series “Outlander,” and Marcie Macquarrie, publisher of Celtic Life magazine. Both gentlemen have illustrious careers and have contributed greatly to the Celtic community at large.
Why is it an important event for the community?
It’s become a holiday tradition for many, something special to look forward to year after year. That’s key to celebrating Christmas – gathering together to enjoy this lovely and inspiring program. It’s also a wonderful introduction to Celtic music performed on traditional instruments by top-notch performers.
Along with attending, how else can people get involved?
Experiencing the concert is – as the question suggests – the best way to become involved or engaged with “The Pipes of Christmas.” Many people tell me they buy a block of tickets to give out as holiday gifts. A great idea! Beyond that, we welcome individual and corporate sponsors with gifts of any size. Donors can be assured their gifts are being put to good use. The Clan Currie Society is a registered not-for-profit organization so all donations are tax deductible in the USA. We also always welcome sweat equity support and have brought on interns interested in concert management and Celtic heritage for some real hands-on experience. Give us a call!