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Earle Hitchner's March 16 WSJ article featuring Brian Conway


Dana Henry <[log in to unmask]>


Irish Traditional Music List <[log in to unmask]>


Wed, 22 Mar 2006 15:41:40 -0800





text/plain (126 lines)

  By Earle Hitchner
  [Published on March 16, 2006, in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Copyright
(c) Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of
  By day, Brian Conway is committed to teaching a lesson to public
officials guilty of embezzlement, perjury, or other criminal misconduct. By
night and over weekends, he is committed to teaching lessons to a dozen
students of Irish traditional fiddling, at which he is a virtuoso.
  For this deputy chief of the Public Integrity Bureau within the
Westchester District Attorney's Office in White Plains, N.Y., the dual sides
of his life complement each other. "There's something about an
assistant district attorney who can play the fiddle that tickles people," Mr.
Conway said while waiting for his 10-year-old daughter, Fiona, to finish
Irish stepdancing lessons on a recent Sunday. "Playing and teaching
Irish music have actually helped to forge bonds and relationships in my
  Occasionally the two sides overlap. Every Wednesday night from 7:30
to 10:30 since 1997, Mr. Conway has hosted a popular Irish traditional
seisiun (music jam) at Dunne's pub in White Plains, and one Wednesday
evening the 44-year-old fiddler was startled by a visitor. "A former
defendant walked in whom I had been responsible for sending away to state
prison for two years," Mr. Conway recalled. "On a break I went up to him
and asked if he knew who I was. He said yes, although he didn't know I
played at Dunne's. Fortunately, there was no ill will, and he returned
over the next couple of Wednesdays to hear me play again."
  To hear Brian Conway play the fiddle is to hear the New York-based
Sligo style at its most pristine and precise. Sligo, a northwest county
in Ireland, is famous for its fiddling, characterized by an engaging,
staccato-like lift in rhythm and tempo and by ornamentation (rolls,
triplets, grace notes) often breathtaking when executed by an expert.
  Born in the Bronx to violin-playing parents from Tyrone, Northern
Ireland, Mr. Conway was exposed to several master musicians often visiting
the family home. Two in particular left indelible imprints on him:
Martin Wynne (1913-1998), a fiddler from Bunnanaddan, Sligo, and Andy
McGann (1928-2004), a fiddler born in New York City who was tutored by
another Sligoman, Michael Coleman (1891-1945), regarded as the most
influential fiddler in the history of Irish traditional music. "There was
nothing careless about what Martin and Andy did musically, never a sloppy or
haphazard moment in their playing," Mr. Conway said. "They would take
playing a reel as seriously as a brain surgeon would take an operation."
  This diligence typifies Mr. Conway's own playing. In 1973, just a
year and a half after starting fiddle lessons, he won his first
All-Ireland junior championship at age 12. A year later, he won his second
All-Ireland junior title, and in 1981 he was barely out of his teens when he,
fellow fiddler Tony DeMarco and guitarist Caesar Pacifici released "The
Apple in Winter." The recording, reissued on CD in 2000, paid tribute
to Wynne, McGann, and other seminal New York resident musicians whose
influence endures.
  In 1986 Mr. Conway became the last U.S.-born winner of the coveted
All-Ireland senior fiddle championship. In competitive circles, that is
the ultimate validation for a proverbial Yank matching skill against
some of Ireland's finest players.
  It would take Mr. Conway 16 more years, however, before he released
his solo debut, "First Through the Gate," on Smithsonian Folkways
Recordings. His penchant for perfection resulted in what was arguably the
best Irish traditional album of 2002, but it did create some mild, comic
tension inside the recording studio with one of his accompanists,
pianist Felix Dolan. "I tortured poor Felix in the studio," Mr. Conway
admitted. "After we would lay down a track, Felix would say, 'It's fine, it's
fine, leave it alone,' and I'd say, 'No, let's do one more take.' I
just wanted to get it right."
  Mr. Conway is currently encountering some of the same good-natured
resistance from his daughter, to whom he's teaching the fiddle. "It's the
only area of occasional friction between us," he said with a laugh. "I
try to give Fiona a new tune on the fiddle every week or so. She's
learning fiddle and piano at the same time, which is a lot."
  Passing along an undiluted form of Irish traditional music is of
paramount importance to Mr. Conway, whose fiddle pupils have included such
All-Ireland junior champions as Maeve Flanagan, his niece, and Patrick
Mangan, who issued his own solo debut, "Farewell to Ireland," in 2003.
They are new links in an impressive, New York-based, Sligo-style
fiddling chain connecting Coleman, McGann and Mr. Conway. "Some players,
especially since 'Riverdance,' think Irish traditional music needs to be
fixed in order to appeal to more people," Mr. Conway said. "But the truth
is that it doesn't need to be fixed because it was never broken to
begin with. It's a beautiful art form that doesn't need to be made
interesting. It already is interesting."
  Last month, Mr. Conway's brilliance as a fiddler and fiddle
instructor was formally recognized with his induction into the Mid-Atlantic
Region Hall of Fame of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the largest
organization of Irish musicians and music followers in the world. This honor came
a decade after the posthumous induction of his father, Jim, who died in
  "My parents and all the musicians who encouraged me strongly believed
in and clung to the traditions they grew up with, whether in Ireland or
America, and I want to set a similar example for my daughter and my
other students," said Mr. Conway, who is finishing up his second solo CD,
due out later this year, and is also planning a tribute album to
McGann. "I work hard as an assistant district attorney, and that gives me the
base and balance allowing me to play Irish music for the sheer joy of
it. Irish music remains fresh for me because I don't have to play it. I
want to play it."
  Earle Hitchner, a writer on Irish traditional music since 1991 for
the IRISH ECHO newspaper and currently its "Ceol" columnist, has written
on Irish and other Celtic and roots music for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
since 1995.

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