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A solo harp, narration bring music of Irish master alive

Patrick Ball and his Irish harp are the only elements of O'Carolan's Farewell to Music, and they are quite enough, thank you, to polish up a gem of a cabaret show at Florida Studio Theatre.

Ball's solo performance celebrates the music of Turlough O'Carolan, a blind harper at the turn of the 18th century who is renowned as Ireland's seminal musician. Roaming the countryside during a time when the Gaelic ways were giving way to English rule, Carolan composed beloved works such as Blind Mary, Sheebeg Sheemore and Carolan's Quarrel with the Landlady.

Playing a wire-strung folk harp, Ball takes on the persona of Charles MacCabe, a poet and traveling companion of the troubadour. MacCabe is writing an elegy to the great musician.

"I admired the man's music long before I met him," he says. "Grand, powerful stuff. The minute he enfolded that harp in his arms, the magic filled that place."

There is a stubborn integrity to Ball's performance, which was directed by Peter Glazer. He doesn't give in to the audience's expectation of easy gratification by relying too much on the enchanting harp. Instead, he is judicious about placing the music within the poet's narrative, which ranges from drunkenness to holiness. The result is richly theatrical, as well as musical. He plays about a dozen numbers in the show, which runs two hours with intermission.

One theme is MacCabe's anger over Carolan's composing not only for the Irish but also for the hated English. He can't get over the fact that the "songs he composed for his English patrons were every bit as good as those for the Irish."

Ball, a Californian who has made nine Celtic harp and storytelling recordings, embodies his subject with uncanny realism. Wearing a period costume _ ruffled shirt, long vest, pantaloons, soft leather boots _ he has the mad gleam in his eye of a true bard.

"It's the madness that all the great ones have," MacCabe says. " 'Tis a gift of the fairy people. Your madness comes from this land. Ireland has blessed you."

A linguist might quibble over the authenticity of Ball's wayward brogue, but the spell he casts with his harp is hauntingly beautiful. All that is missing is a peat fire burning and the wind howling and rain pelting down on the heath of Ireland.