Keeping the spirit of Irish music alive

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, for The Observer March 10, 2014 09:44 am

Local musicians including David Arnold, Bailey Penninger, Margo Mack, Carla Arnold, Beth Gilmore, Michael Snider (front),  Teresa Penninger, Fred Behrens and Wes Penninger (back) play a reel during a session at Bear Mountain Pizza. (BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH photo)
Local musicians including David Arnold, Bailey Penninger, Margo Mack, Carla Arnold, Beth Gilmore, Michael Snider (front), Teresa Penninger, Fred Behrens and Wes Penninger (back) play a reel during a session at Bear Mountain Pizza. (BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH photo)

Irish music takes center stage once a month 

The third Thursday night of the month, pretty much like clockwork, musicians come through the door at Bear Mountain Pizza, packing fiddles, flutes, banjos, guitars and mandolins, and an upright bass or two.

They take seats in chairs arranged in a circle toward the back of the big dining area, near the house piano and not far from a free-standing fireplace that gives off a warm cozy glow. They play, and for a couple of hours, Bear Mountain more resembles an Irish pub than a pizzeria.

Certainly, it sounds like an Irish pub. The tunes are Irish, a mix of old standards and newer entries. They have the distinctive lilt and the toe-tapping rhythm most people associate with the faraway Emerald Isle.

To someone unused to it, the music seems complex with so many instruments chiming in at once. Yet nobody’s reading any sheet music. From the youngest teenage player to the oldest senior citizen, everybody seems to know exactly the right thing to do, and when.

“It’s just a wondrous thing that happens, and it’s always new,” said Carla Arnold, a local music teacher who has taught many of the players who come out for the La Grande Irish pub sessions.

The sessions, happening in La Grande a long time now, are an outgrowth of Traditional-Live, the local cultural organization also known as the Northeast Oregon Folklore Society. Traditional-Live stages events and programs for international music and dance.

In 2005, Arnold and fellow Society member Larry B. Smith began thinking of ways to bring together musicians who share a love for Irish music. The program they started had its first sessions at Ten Depot, the pub and eatery in downtown La Grande owned by Sandy Sorrels.

“We wanted to bring out of the woodwork closet musicians who didn’t have a musical community to connect to,” Arnold said. She added that for herself, a love of Anglo-Celtic-rooted contra music and dance sparked an interest in the Irish pub style of playing.

“A lot of those reels in contra music, you hear in the Irish pieces,” she said.

The La Grande sessions have been informal affairs from the beginning. Arnold said they resemble the loose-knit pub sessions played by Irish immigrants in London just after World War II.

Nobody knows exactly how many musicians will show up at a session; those who do take a seat and give their best, observing a few simple rules of etiquette designed to foster respect for the efforts of others in the group. Players are expected to leave their egos at the door, and to never try to exceed their abilities.

Ten Depot was home to La Grande’s Irish sessions until 2008, when they were moved to Bear Mountain Pizza on Island Avenue. Arnold said Bear Mountain has more space, and a “kid-friendly” environment that’s in keeping with the program’s aim of helping young musicians develop.

Arnold, always the teacher, said she most enjoys watching students both young and old build their skills and learn how to contribute individually to a shared goal, in this case, good Irish music.

“The biggest reward is watching new players emerge as confident musicians, settling into the safety net of the context of playing in a large group,” she said.