Omaha-area arts lovers had every reason to expect an aural masterpiece from Saturday night’s first visit of The Priests to the Holland Performing Arts Center.
The crowd left entirely satisfied — with delightful holiday sprinkles of grace and humor for good measure.
Capping a monthlong, 17-city North American tour, the world-renowned trio of Northern Irish clerics took full advantage of the Peter Kiewit Concert Hall’s superb acoustics for more than two hours before an enthusiastic, near-capacity audience.
Given The Priests’ repetitive praise for the venue, one expects to see the Revs. David Delargy, Eugene O’Hagan and Martin O’Hagan return to Omaha sooner rather than later.
“We would like to return. I think we left our best concert for the very end,” said Eugene O’Hagan, Martin’s older brother, before The Priests capped their second-half Christmas set with “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
Before intermission, he had quoted an Irish saying — “May we all meet again next year” — and quickly added, “That’s a little hint, Mr. Promoter!”
This threesome of Catholic priests first made music together as schoolboys in 1974, but they didn’t form their trio until shortly before they burst onto the worldwide music scene with their 2008 debut album.
Such familiarity goes a long way toward explaining The Priests’ virtually perfect blend. They deliver every song with assurance, practiced breath control and impeccable diction. Each sings solos with authority, then melts into the precisely balanced harmony of the group.
Familiar classical settings of Catholic chants dominated the concert’s first act, including C้sar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” and Franz Schubert’s setting of “Ave Maria.” Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’ version of “Ave Verum” offered a noteworthy, beautiful exception, as did “Ring Out Your Praise,” a new piece that the trio received from a friend earlier this fall.
Up until intermission, The Priests showed engaging warmth between songs but sang with few hand gestures and stage dramatics. But the three opened the second act by darting onto stage carrying bell-covered holiday wreaths covered with bells, which they shook with gusto during “Ding! Dong! Merrily on High.”
Additional comedy came from the Spanish carol “Hacia Belen” and the group’s audience- participation encore of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
But the second act also included a beautiful arrangement of “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” and a simple rendition of “Silent Night” in which one could imagine The Priests singing together behind an altar as the manger was placed in the Nativity scene to open Christmas Eve Mass.
Concertgoers also were treated to four enticing solos by Omaha soprano Shelby VanNordstrand, a University of Nebraska at Omaha voice professor.
She and the trio benefited from superb accompaniment that included pianist Stacie Haneline, VanNordstrand’s colleague on the UNO faculty, and local virtuosos Keith Plenert and Jeffery King on violin, Thomas Kluge on viola and Gregory Clinton on cello.