CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Celtic Woman drew a large and enthusiastic crowd for its performance of Christmas music -- plus some of its other non-seasonal hits -- with the West Virginia Symphony Tuesday night at the Clay Center.The trio of Irish singers, Mairead Carlin, Lisa Lambe and Susan McFadden, along with fiddle player Mairead Nesbitt, entertained for nearly two hours for an audience that seemed as if it would be happy to listen for two more.The group's music director David Downes played piano along with the orchestra, but it is his superb arrangements that really drive the show.The concert began with Downes' dazzling arrangement of "Carol of the Bells" which had lots of brassy energy while giving the singers natty harmony to go with that catchy little tune. The trio certainly didn't disappoint, sounding bright and pitch perfect. What made the piece so special, though, was its sudden turns into Irish dance music on which Nesbitt fiddled away.
The concert's highlight was "Ding, Dong, Merrily on High." Carlin, Lambe and McFadden shared the melody gracefully while slipping into charming harmony on the choruses. Downes' setting makes great use of a chugging rhythm of sleigh bells and small percussion and has wonderful drones in the bass. The ending is pure elegance, built from loud peals of sound that give way to the trio in moderate volume with a halo of strings and winds.Each of the singers sounded very stylishly American (in the opposite of the way none of us ever sound stylishly Irish) in a variety of American popular songs. Lambe sang "I'll be Home for Christmas." McFadden added "The Christmas Song" with orchestra cellist Andrea Di Gregorio playing a brief solo. Lambe and McFadden were joined by percussionist Andy Riley on snare drum for "The Little Drummer Boy."The trio sang "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" with jazzy panache while Nesbitt added a bit of fiddle in the gaps.
One of the simplest arrangements stood out with the trio and Nesbitt, accompanied by Downes' piano.Carlin brought a very direct emotion to "Silent Night" and showed a solid upper range at the end.It would be hard to do pop music without "White Christmas." The trio made it lush, especially in the last chorus. A bit of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" made the end shine.Nesbitt played Holst's "In the Bleak Midwinter" and a pair of flashy Celtic dance medleys (with Riley on frame drum) with flair.Lambe sang gorgeously on Robert Burns' "Old Lang Syne" -- on that other tune that you hear once in a while and not the one that we sing on New Year's Eve. Carlin traded phrases with a bagpipes player on "We Three Kings of Orient are" to striking effect.The concert had two big closing numbers. "Oh, Christmas Tree" was sung in German with brass resounding to close the first half. "You Raise Me Up" ended the program with the singers in neat harmony and in an arrangement that stopped short of being over the top.A straightforward "O, Come All Ye Faithful" and a witty "Let it Snow" were the encores.John Page led the local orchestra with precision and style.