Toronto Star
Wednesday, July 26th

Irish tenors' sincerity justifies sentimentality

By William Littler

With the words of Ireland, Mother Ireland ringing in his ears, your humble servant left the Hummingbird Centre last night with the Three Irish Tenors still basking in Celtic nostalgia.

Although the concert marked their Toronto debut, their recordings have made these gentlemen familiar fixtures on the professional Irish circuit for the past couple of years, the first having enjoyed 49 weeks on the Billboard World Music Chart and the latest, The Irish Tenors Live In Belfast, documenting a concert in Northern Ireland performed as recently as last February.

The source of their popularity? Nothing more complicated than three genial, unaffected personalities wedded to handsome natural tenor voices.

Ireland has always specialized in tenors, just as Russia has specialized in basses. But they tend not to be robust Italianate tenors so much as lyric tenors, less interested in belting out high C's than in spinning out shapely melody lines.

The greatest of them, of course, was John McCormack, and it is perhaps significant that the most McCormack-like in vocal refinement and musical sophistication of the Irish Tenors, Anthony Kearns, selected a McCormick favourite as one of the solos he contributed to the program.

It seemed equally appropriate that the most emotionally outgoing of the trio, Ronan Tynan, would choose as one of his solos Phil Coulter's stirring tribute to Derry, ``The Town I Loved So Well.''

Unlike his two colleagues, Finbar Wright was not one of the original Irish Tenors. A former priest, he joined the trio to replace Canada's John McDermott, who departed several months ago to attend his dying mother.

All the same, he seems to be fitting in nicely, holding his own in the solo department as well as in the ensembles.

Although Kearns has had operatic training, operatic arias are not part of the stock in trade of The Irish Tenors. In this respect they differ from The Three Tenors, The Three Sopranos and the Three Finnish Basses, their counterparts in the trinitarian music business.

Save for an occasional lapse, such as Wright's rendition of ``South Of The Border Down Mexico Way'' (which was at least written by an Irishman) or Tynan's rendition of ``When I Look At You'' from the Broadway musical The Scarlet Pimpernel, they pretty well stick to the wearing of the green.

And plenty of musical green there is, too. For a small country, Ireland has produced an enormous song literature, much of it devoted to the same kind of sentimental storytelling that can be found on an informal basis in pubs across the land.

If the songs sometimes sound cloying in their sentimentality, they can just as often be rescued by a direct, sincere musical approach, the kind practiced by The Irish Tenors.

In a way it was sad the tenors chose to use microphones, which had the effect of inflating some of the intimacies of these songs, but in a venue as commodious as the Hummingbird Centre, backed by a large pick-up orchestra, they obviously saved wear and tear on their voices.

Frank McNamara, their musical director, provided them with slickly professional arrangements in any case. After all, the object of their exercise was entertainment, not ethnomusicology.