Exquisite, timeless, traditional folk melodies from Ireland, Scotland, and England is what drew guitarist Sylvie Harris to Celtic music and led her to form Celticity with vocalist Phred Mileski and flutist Megan Sweeney.
The trio of classically-trained musicians has just released its first CD of music they describe as “Celtic with a classical touch.”
Harris was aware that the success of groups like Celtic Woman shows a popular demand for this kind of music, and so three years ago she asked Mileski — whom she knew through Christ Church School of the Arts in Norwich — if she’d like to form an all-female ensemble that would combine Celtic and classical music and arrange it for fingerstyle guitar, voice, and flute.
“Phred loved the idea and immediately said ‘Count me in,’” Harris recalls.
Harris then ran an ad on Craig’s List seeking a classically trained flutist interested in playing traditional Irish music, and Sweeney immediately responded.
“She has an Irish background and the technical and musical abilities we were looking for — and that’s how the trio was formed,” Harris says.
“Both Megan and Phred are amazing musicians and I’m honored to work with them,” Harris continues. “I love the energy and enthusiasm they bring to the group. All three of us have taken what started as an idea and grown it into something much bigger than we ever imagined. We’ve all learned new instruments for the group. Megan started with flute and added alto flute, fife, and tin whistle. And Phred is constantly adding new instruments! She started out as our singer and now plays the Bodrhan drum, accordion, and psaltery.”
Although the women don’t compose their own pieces, Harris stresses that one of the group’s unique features is that all the arrangements are original.
“We’re noted for our stunning, tight arrangements,” she says, “which is why we’re as popular in chamber music settings as traditional Irish festivals.”
The three women bring impressive and varied musical backgrounds and experiences to the group.
Born in Quebec, Canada, Harris has studied with the world’s leading guitarists, regularly performs chamber music throughout New England, and was director of the Norwich Guitar Academy for the past decade, which she ran out of her home in Norwich. She recently moved to Ornage, Massachusetts, when her youngest son went off to college, and opened her own music store — a longtime dream of hers.
Mileski grew up in Norwich and now lives in New London. She has sung throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe, performing many musical genres from classical to cabaret. She’s recorded several CDs with Archangel Voices, an internationally acclaimed small choir specializing in Orthodox liturgical music. She is also principal soloist at St. John’s Church in Essex and cantor at St. Patrick’s Church in Mystic.
Sweeney grew up in Pennsylvania and came to Connecticut to attend Hartt School of Music, graduating in 2005 with two bachelor’s degrees in music education and flute performance. She left her position as middle school band director in Plainfield for a year-long educational sabbatical to complete her master’s in music education at Hartt. She plans to move back to southeastern Connecticut with her fiancé — also a musician — next fall and resume her position as band director.
Sweeney says the diversity of Celtic music is very appealing to her.
“Some of our biggest crowd-pleasers are incredibly simple yet breathtakingly beautiful songs,” she observes. “There’s something very special about playing a simple melody as beautifully as possible. But then, I get to pick up a penny whistle and play a reel as fast as my fingers will go! It’s the best of most worlds.”
She notes that all four of her grandparents are Irish and she grew up hearing Irish music constantly playing in their homes.
“My grandparents were always extremely proud to be Irish, and I was happy to play Irish music for them when they were alive,” Sweeney says, “and I am happy now to honor my ancestors with my music.”
There are a number of things that speak to Mileski about performing this music.
“It’s the only time I get to sit down!” she jokes. “Seriously, though, I have a pathological need to improvise, so I just grab an instrument of mine and start making something up to go with whatever Sylvie and Megan are doing.
I like telling stories, and so many Celtic songs really are little stories. As a classically trained soprano, I’m always glad for the chance to use that voice to sing these stories with pretty melodies in high keys.”
There is a great dynamic between the three women — musically and personally.
“Each of us brings a different set of skills — non-musical as well as musical — to the group, and our respective abilities mesh together well,” Mileski says. “For instance, Sylvie’s got a lot of marketing experience, which is something I’m not very good at, while, to both Sylvie’s and Megan’s relief, I’m totally comfortable talking to audiences — although I’ve noticed they’ve loosened up considerably on that since we started.”
“Both ladies are incredibly fun to be around. Sometimes we start laughing so hard in rehearsals we have to contain ourselves before we can continue!”
Sweeney says, adding, “Sylvie and Phred are both masters on their instruments, and it is lovely to be able to sit down and create music together.”
There is also something special about working with other women musicians, Harris points out.
“There is the potential to develop strong friendships and a bond that carries over into the musical performance,” she says. “A fan once told us, ‘I can tell you’ve been playing together for many years by how you all play off each other so well with hardly any communication.’ We’d actually only been playing together for about a year when we received that compliment.
“Through our friendship, on and off stage, we are very in tune with each other’s communication styles,” she says, “which effects our ability to relate to each other on stage.”
Christmas Concert Schedule
Dec. 8, 3 p.m.
Christ Episcopal Church
78 Washington St., Norwich
Dec. 15, 7 p.m.
Bread Box Theater
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
220 Valley St., Willimantic
Dec. 15, 10 a.m.
Avon Congregational Church
6 West Main St., Avon