Celtic musician serenades art camp

Posted Sept. 10, 2008, at 6:13 p.m.

BY CHUCK VEEDER

SPECIAL TO THE WEEKLY

NEWBURGH — The purple sign on Kennebec Road not only announces that you have arrived at Windover Art Camp, but signals the camp’s purpose. You can’t miss the support posts that are sculpted and painted to look like a pencil and paint brush.

On a rare, sun-splashed Monday during a month of showers, Maggie Sansone, one of the country’s leading hammered dulcimer players and instructors, visited Windover to perform a concert for students and staff.

How was an artist of Sansone’s reputation, who lives beside Chesapeake Bay in the small Maryland town of Shady Side, lured to play a free concert in such a bucolic setting?

It has to be serendipity, one of those things that happen by chance. To wit: a dynamo named Mari Abercrombie runs Windover. Her mother lives in Shady Side across the river from Maggie Sansone. The two women regularly walk together. So when Sansone and her husband came to Maine to visit friends, she accepted Abercrombie’s invitation to come to Windover.

That’s how more than 60 children and adults came to be sitting spellbound, occupying almost every seat in the Birch Tree Theatre. Sansone, accompanied by camp music director Duane Nickerson of Jackson on the guitar, played and sang music ranging from rousing nursery rhymes to haunting Celtic tunes and Appalachian ballads.

The hammered dulcimer, an instrument that has been around for thousands of years, is believed to be originally from the Near East and is mentioned in the Old Testament.

Its popularity has been eclipsed by other instruments, most recently the piano, yet it is enjoying a modest revival, particularly among performers of Celtic music.

The hammered dulcimer is played by striking the strings with two hammers on the ends of sticks — the same principle as the xylophone. Most hammers also have hooks to allow the strings to be plucked for a different sound. The instrument is not related to the Appalachian dulcimer, however.

Sansone strikes her hammered dulcimer’s 65 strings with hammers that are double-sided — the wooden hammer covered with leather on one side for a softer sound.

The relaxed and engaging Sansone is a self-professed “music instrument addict” who started on piano at age 8, took classical guitar and recorder lessons until age 16, then started playing the bassoon. Somewhere between then and earning a degree at Kent State in Ohio, she took up the banjo and mandolin.

A street musician in Key West, Fla., introduced Sansone to the hammered dulcimer, leaving her “completely mesmerized. I was obsessed with finding one and learning how to play it.”

At Windover, she also played the Uilleann pipes, which are smaller and quieter than the Scottish Highland pipes.

True love struck Sansone, musically speaking, while she was living in Baltimore, a city with a significant Irish population, its quota of Irish pubs and thus, Irish music.

“I think that Celtic music speaks directly to the soul,” Sansone said. “The airs have a kind of mystical moodiness which speaks to the heart.”

Another side of Sansone is the businesswoman, who with her husband owns and runs Maggie’s Music. The company sells her CDs and those of friends in the folk and Celtic tradition, including famed Scottish fiddler Bonnie Rideout.

Sansone learned she had a “knack for selling” as she traveled from Los Angeles to the East Coast in a Dodge Dart selling her first LP to record stores along the route. Maggie’s Music has been a part of her evolution, as well.

“As an artist and as a label,” Sansone said, “I have developed a new sound which has become known as ‘chamber folk,’ a blend of Celtic and early-music instruments, a newage spacious quality and the kind of sophisticated harmonies and variation you might hear in a string quartet.”

Sansone is part of the diversity of guests Abercrombie has brought over the years to Windover, where campers choose daily from activities including photography, filmmaking, theater and music, pottery and glass shop, silk screening and puppet making.

The Birch Tree Theatre is a reflection of the intertwining of Abercrombie’s family and the arts. A mural on the side wall memorializes members of her family who have instilled in her an overwhelming love and respect for the arts.

Her late father, Tom Abercrombie, a photographer and Middle East specialist with National Geographic Magazine, is shown interviewing a camel, and brother Bruce is standing behind a video camera, just as he was for the Maggie Sansone concert. Bruce spent a week of vacation from his job in Baltimore teaching video and editing at Windover. He directed campers who taped the Sansone concert on cameras he has scrounged up over the years.

Call it serendipity or call it destiny. Maggie Sansone generously spent a day in the verdant Maine countryside and brought her own brand of sunshine to appreciative kids at Windover.

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