It was the measure of harpist Alan Stivell's mystic art that although he sang in an obscure Breton dialect, his themes were clear and immediate to a capacity crowd at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre Saturday night. Stivell creates distinct atmospheres out of a Celtic tradition that stretches from his own Breton upbringing to the music of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. He fuses traditional styles with a contemporary accent, so that the textures of his songs are rooted between hazy history and vivid immediacy. In English, Stivell would announce song themes and then embellish the mournful or joyous melodies with his grainy, ethereal Breton vocals. The mesmerized audience understood every feeling and emotional nuance.
What sets Stivell apart, of course, is his mastery of the Celtic harp, an instrument that he revived after five centuries of disuse. Stivell's playing is both rhythmic and eloquent, sounding at different times like a graceful harpsichord, an exuberant hammered dulcimer, a tinny zither, two Spanish guitars playing a delicate duet. At other times, it sounded as if an insistent breeze was echoing through wind chimes. Occasionally resorting to an Irish tin whistle or a bombarde (a primitive oboe), Stivell constructed melodies that danced, and songs that transcended language. For one night, he revived the minstrel tradition even as he shaped his Celtic mystery.