An immigration-themed performance event that premieres February 9-11 at the Boston Center for the Arts will feature a specially commissioned piece by Charlie Lennon – one of Ireland’s most distinguished tradition-influenced musicians/composers – and a narrative based on family stories of two prominent Boston citizens: Mayor Martin Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, and Irish musician Tommy McCarthy, owner of the popular Davis Square music venue The Burren.
Through a combination of music, spoken word, and art installation, “Seeking Sanctuary” will evoke the journeys and experiences of three of Boston’s largest immigrant communities, Chinese and Cape Verdean as well as Irish, according to organizers.
Joey Abarta, a Boston resident widely considered among the best uilleann pipers of his generation, will be the guest performer on the piece by Lennon, who will play fiddle.
Other participants in the “Seeking Sanctuary” concert include Zhantao Lin, a virtuoso on the Chinese bowed instrument the erhu who will perform a selection of Chinese folk songs, and vocalist Benvindo Cruz, who will lead a set of Cape Verdean traditional music.
Complementing the performances will be a visual art installation based on immigrants’ stories; audience members will be invited to write about and contribute their own personal or family immigration experiences.
The “Seeking Sanctuary” event is organized by Palaver Strings, a Boston-based, musician-led string orchestra and nonprofit organization that seeks to take classical music beyond the concert hall, engaging new and diverse audiences by examining social issues through the prism of artistic expression; its name is derived from the Liberian expression “palaver hut,” meaning a place for discussion and conflict resolution.
Maya French, Palaver’s executive director and a co-organizer of “Seeking Sanctuary,” says the project is an effort to look beyond political turmoil, controversy and rhetoric and focus on the historical, and human, aspect of immigration.
“Everyone has their own immigration story – and these are all part of America’s story,” she explains. “The idea is to use the musical pieces and the narratives, along with the art installation, to aid the discussion about the common threads in our immigrant heritage: hopes, fears, disappointments, successes. These all bind us together.”
The impetus for “Seeking Sanctuary” came from Palaver member Nate Martin, whose mother Laurel is an accomplished Irish fiddle player. A former student of master fiddler Seamus Connolly, Martin – chair of the Irish Music Department at Indian Hill Music School in Littleton – has performed in several different collaborations, including the fiddle ensemble Childsplay, and has a solo recording to her credit.
Martin has been pleased by Nate’s experiences with Palaver: “It’s just so inspiring to see committed young classical musicians thinking of creative ways to present the music, and finding different contexts for it.” Nate and the family have often mused about possible projects Palaver could undertake, she adds.
“Then, a couple of years ago, I thought how interesting it would be if the group could collaborate with Charlie Lennon. I love his compositions because they fall within the traditional Irish music genre – many of his tunes are widely played by Irish musicians – and he’s also done exemplary work in bridging the gap between classical and traditional music,” says Martin, pointing to Lennon’s suite “A Terrible Beauty,” honoring the heroes of the 1916 Easter Rising.
Lennon, the TG4 Composer of the Year in 2006, began playing piano and fiddle at age seven, becoming immersed in the distinctive Sligo music tradition. In his late teens, he studied classical and jazz, and became a professional musician playing in several ceili bands. During the late 1970s, he began composing tunes and went on to record six albums, including “Lucky in Love,” “Island Wedding” and “Flight from the Hungry Land”; he also published a book of his compositions, Musical Memories.
When Lennon came to Boston two years ago to present “A Terrible Beauty,” Laurel and Nate, along with French, approached him about writing a piece that would be the basis of a Palaver collaboration. As discussions continued, an idea emerged that the composition could be built around the theme of stories about Boston’s immigrant communities.
“This was well before the presidential election took place,” Martin notes. “While immigration was certainly a major issue in the campaign, the project took shape in advance of the events and controversies that arose during the Trump administration’s first year.
“Immigration has been an important theme throughout our history, and it is obviously a very timely one now. But this is an artistic event, not a political one.”
Lennon wanted to have an uilleann piper involved in the project, so Abarta was recruited. The Los Angeles native, who moved to Boston in 2009, has toured North America, Europe, and Asia as a performer as well as a teacher. Locally, he has appeared in “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” and BCMFest, and is part of a duo with fiddler/guitarist Nathan Gourley as Copley Street. His recordings include a solo album, “Swimming Against the Falls,” and “Copley Street” with Gourley. Abarta received a traditional arts apprenticeship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council that enabled him to share his knowledge with a younger musician.
“I feel that this concert is a tribute to listening,” says Martin. “Tradition is about listening to the old styles, stories and music, and taking them to heart as well as to the mind. So this is an opportunity to not only listen to, but reflect on immigrants’ stories, and extrapolate from them to get a sense of the rich tapestry they represent.”
For information on “Seeking Sanctuary,” go to palaverstrings.org/events.