A Family Affair : Bringing Celtic music to the Island
When master fiddler Alasdair Fraser takes the stage at Katharine Cornell Theatre tonight with the young cello-playing phenomenon, Natalie Haas, it promises to be an evening to remember. For the gift of this evening, the Island community owes its thanks to Mary Wolverton and Gregg Harcourt, a couple whose shared love of Celtic music has made them its indefatigable local impresarios for more than a decade.
Both are Island transplants who came for what they planned as short stints here - he in 1980 and she in 1993.
Mr. Harcourt came here in 1980 to restore an Island house and found plenty of work as a skilled carpenter. Ms. Wolverton, an accomplished violinist in her own right, came in 1993 for a summer of work in an Edgartown shop, and - thanks to the coincidence of a shared landlord - found Mr. Harcourt. Raised as a farm girl and experienced in the set-building shop at the University of Iowa, Ms. Wolverton soon became Mr. Harcourt's partner, both in life and in their fine cabinet-making business.
Both brought a love of music to the Island, and the couple was drawn into the local music scene, enjoying the evenings of Celtic music that Avi Lev used to produce at the Wintertide Coffeehouse.
Their first venture into concert organizing brought the legendary uilleann piper Paddy Keenan to the Old Whaling Church to benefit the Vineyard Project for children with AIDS. That was 1996, and this duo has never looked back, organizing scores of concerts since then, most of them at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Tisbury.
They explain that Cornell Hall is a great venue with about 140 seats, good acoustics and, perhaps most important, a nonprofit rental rate of $50 for a night. Ms. Wolverton and Gregg Harcourt's nonprofit enterprise, KCT Concerts, takes its name from the hall, and they use it for their concerts except in rare instances when they bring an artist to the Vineyard whose name commands a larger audience.
This summer, a highlight of the KCT concert season will be the Union Chapel performance by the great Iowa folksinger Greg Brown. Says Ms. Wolverton, "I saw Greg in Iowa City when he used to live and play there, and he's been one of my favorites forever. Gregg had wanted to bring him here for years, but he's pretty expensive to get."
Photo by Nis Kildegaard
This year, thanks in part to a grant from the Martha's Vineyard Arts Council, Mr. Harcourt took the leap and hired Mr. Brown to perform on July 15 - not coincidentally, Ms. Wolverton's birthday. She laughs when she remembers how he told her the news, teasing, "Guess what?"
It's a lot of work mounting eight concerts in a year, the couple agree, and this challenge became a lot greater on April 20, 2007, when their son Mattie was born. Mattie has helped Ms. Wolverton introduce every concert from the stage of Cornell Hall since last June, when Fred Eaglesmith performed. But she hasn't had time to help in the woodshop since Mattie came into their lives. Mr. Harcourt says, sheepishly,
"I guess I didn't realize how much work it is being a mother."
But through all the adjustments, these new parents have continued to pour every ounce of spare energy into bringing Celtic music to the Vineyard. Financially, they'd be better off if they didn't - the two have never paid themselves for any of the work involved in organizing, promoting or presenting a concert. In fact, when the take at the door is less than expected, they reach into their own pockets to pay the musicians' promised fee.
Looking back to the April 11 concert, which cost them $300 in personal funds, Ms. Wolverton says wistfully, "Each concert is a gamble. But Kevin Burke should have been a full house. In Boston, he would have been."
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Both make it clear that this is a labor of love. They seem almost mystified, in fact, that everyone doesn't share their affection for Celtic music and the excitement of seeing it performed live.
In a sense, the most reliable demand for these concerts is from the musicians themselves. The Celtic music community is a small one, and tightly knit, and word has gotten around that playing for KCT Concerts on Martha's Vineyard is a great gig. Mr. Harcourt says he has more requests from musicians to play here each year than he and Ms. Wolverton have the time and energy to schedule for concerts.
"We do treat our musicians well," says Ms. Wolverton, "and we've gotten a good reputation, I think, as the musicians who play here speak to other musicians - they know it's a good venue."
"It is a lot of work to sustain this," admits Mr. Harcourt, and Ms. Wolverton quickly adds: "When the musicians actually arrive, it's exciting. We enjoy meeting the musicians in person and not just hearing them on a CD, getting to know them as people, watching the interaction among them onstage."
Mr. Harcourt agrees, and says they don't plan on giving up this work anytime soon: "This is one of the best parts of our lives."
Violinist Alasdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas perform traditional and contemporary Celtic music tonight, May 15, at 8 pm at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. Tickets are $20 at the door. Children, free.
Nis Kildegaard's column, Soundings, appears on the editorial pages of The Times on the first and third Thursdays of every month.