To close the Irish and Breton folk night at Budapest’s Fonó Club on Thursday, 8 July, a talented young duo will be playing two tricky wind instruments, using expertise gained at the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance in Limerick. Susan Ní Cholmáin from Donegal and Simon Pfisterer from Bavaria met while studying at this renowned academy and are now playing their concertina and uilleann pipes around Central Europe this summer, including this week’s Fonó show. Also on the bill will be a Breton harp builder and a violinist specialising in the sounds of western Ireland.
The musical journeys of Susan Ní Cholmáin and Simon Pfisterer began in different directions but started when both were young. “I started on the tin whistle when I was five,” says Susan, “which is typically how it starts in Ireland. Then you move on to a more complex instrument when you’re nine or ten. My mum gave me a concertina!” Fortunately both of Susan’s parents are both steeped in folk tradition, her mother an accomplished musician herself.
Irish music tradition
“My holidays were spent at workshops and summer schools for Irish music,” remembers Susan. “I was so lucky to learn from many other musicians.”
Simon grew up by the lakeside resort of Tegernsee, amid the Alps near the German-Austrian border. His was a more random introduction to music, as he explains: “I was six years old when I suddenly declared, ‘I want to play the bagpipes!’”
With few bagpipe players elsewhere at Tegernsee, his parents were in a bit of a quandary over how to meet their son’s needs. While perhaps wishing this notion would be a fleeting one, the family happened to visit a Renaissance fair that was passing through town. There, a musician was playing the hümmelchen, small German bagpipes from the Renaissance era. He showed the curious young onlooker how it was done, and Simon’s fate was sealed when someone was advertising a set of uilleann pipes for sale.
“I came to irish music by way of bagpipes,” he says. “It was more a journey by bagpipe.” Uilleann pipes are considered the Irish national bagpipe, and require great dexterity – and years of practice – to learn how to play. The sound is more harmonious and sweeter than the one produced by their arguably more famous counterpart in Scotland.
Given his lifelong passion, Simon applied to study at the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance in Limerick, and was accepted. Susan, meanwhile, was a student of the concertina there, having made the relatively short journey from Donegal. Both have since graduated and are slowly starting to play professionally, while also giving lessons.
“This summer we’ll be based in Central Europe,” says Susan, “playing here in Budapest, in Vienna and Berlin. For the autumn, we’ll probably move back to Ireland”.
In the meantime, the couple close Thursday evening at the Fonó with Irish Baroque and modern tunes. Also involved will be musicologist Quentin Vestur, a master (and builder) of Breton and Celtic harps, and researcher into the Celtic cultures that span seas and generations.
Other performers include Sylvain Pourtier, an expert in the violin tradition of Irish folk music, particularly in the western counties, and stalwarts of Breton music, the Duo Rouyer, regular guests at folk festivals.