Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Priests confess to loving superstar status the many superstar vocal groups that have graced the world's concert stages, only one can claim to both give autographs and take confession. 

The Priests, a classical trio of three Roman Catholic priests from Northern Ireland, have not only been blessed with a holy calling, but with angelic voices that have carried them to worldwide fame and record-setting album sales. 

The Priests are the Revs. Martin O'Hagan, Eugene O'Hagan and David Delargy, whose self-titled debut album of 2008 has sold more than 2 million copies. In fact, it sold at such a frantic pace it secured them a place in Guinness World Records as the fastest-selling classical debut of all time. That's a feat even Luciano Pavarotti couldn't match. Their follow-up album, "Harmony," released in 2009, also went platinum, making the trio one of the most successful acts in both the religious and secular worlds.

The Priests have toured the world, singing to audiences that have included the British Royal Family, the president of Ireland and Pope Benedict XVI, with whom they shared the stage in 2010, performing in front of a crowd of 80,000 at Hyde Park in London. On Wednesday, the trio will appear at the State Theatre in Easton for a concert that includes songs both sacred and secular, spanning from Bach to the Beatles.

The group is on its second North American tour, which kicked off in Joliet, Ill. Nov. 9, and will visit 18 cities in Canada and the U.S. You'd think nothing could unsettle a trio that has sung for a queen, a president and a pope, but this time there is — a tour bus.

"This year we have a tour bus for the first time, and it will be interesting to see how it works," says Martin O'Hagan in a delightful brogue. "We'll be thrown together in such close proximity. It's the snoring I'm worried about, you see." O'Hagan was speaking from the comforting privacy of a hotel room in Toronto.

O'Hagan might also be speaking from experience, since the trio has been singing together since the 1970s, when they were students in grammar school. All three had become full-time clergymen when, in 2007, Epic Records in the UK was on the lookout for a priest who could sing. O'Hagan, then 44, had been recommended. But because O'Hagan had long sung as part of a trio, he brought his two compatriots with him — his older brother Eugene, then 48, and lifelong friend David, 44.

"We sang three songs for them, which they recorded and also filmed," O'Hagan says. "Then they went away again. As far as we were concerned, that was it. It had been a lovely experience." But it was far from over, for now Epic no longer wanted just one priest, they wanted all three.

They were signed in a matter of weeks and put into the studio with Mike Hedges, a producer who has worked with everyone from U2 to the punk group Manic Street Preachers. A year later, the group's first album was released.

The trio's subsequent rise to fame surprised everyone — or maybe not. "There might be a sense of the providential in it. If we can, in any way, be a channel which God can use to reach people, then that's great," O'Hagan says. "But we wear that honor very lightly, and always keep our feet on the ground." 

Remarkably, the trio manages to balance full-time priestly duties with a rigorous touring schedule and numerous recording projects. Says O'Hagan, "It's tricky. I used to say that it's like balancing spinning plates. Now I say it's like balancing an entire dinner set. We plan these tours well in advance, and our parishioners understand that as well. We do have in the contract a specific indication that our duties in the parish won't be in any way compromised, and we're delighted about that, and most grateful."

Less compromise is involved than one would think, considering that The Priests consider their concert gigs and record sales just another form of ministry. "The message is given in a very gentle and nonthreatening manner. It's a context where you can reach as many people as possible, where the music can sooth, reassure, and uplift, and maybe even send people out with a sense of hope. A lot of our feedback suggests the concerts often are a rekindling experience of faith."

Although The Priests have yet to be asked to perform a wedding or take confession during an intermission or after a concert, other priestly duties have been asked for, and granted. "It has happened after a concert that someone has asked me, 'Father, can I receive a blessing?' Maybe they're going through a tough time, have experienced a loss, or the like. So we do have those little sacred moments. There is this most definite bridging between the music and ministry. It's marvelous actually — a most privileged position to be in," O'Hagan says.

The group's repertoire is broad. It's not unusual to hear Schubert, Elgar and Franck mixed in with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gilbert and Sullivan — and even the Beatles. "We're going to give 'Eleanor Rigby' a priestly little touch, and we've even learned a new Van Morrison song, which we'll sing in honor of his upcoming Freedom of Belfast award to be presented in December," O'Hagan says.

Of course, the group's ever-popular "Ave Maria" will be on the program, both in the traditional Schubert version and one by the Italian Baroque composer Giulio Caccini, recently made popular by Andrea Bocelli. The songs will be accompanied by a six-piece ensemble composed of local musicians, as well as a healthy amount of friendly banter and good humor. 

"There is that sense that priests have one foot in the world and one foot outside of it," says O'Hagan. "The preconceptions of people regarding the priesthood and seeing what we do have often been challenged and shaken. Yes, we enjoy a good laugh and engage in technology. Eugene is the one who's the fondest of gadgetry in the group, but slowly and surely, I've been brought into the 21st century. We both have webcams in our parishes, which is a new way of reaching out. The technology reveals a more three-dimensional side of what we're like as priests."

The Priests' rock-group status, thankfully, does not extend to fast cars and an over-indulgent lifestyle. The group takes home only a small percentage of its profits, with the vast majority of their royalties going into their charitable trust, which helps build schools in places like Cambodia, Uganda and Thailand, and is also used to help look after retired priests and the homeless.

And forget about luxury cars.

"I drive a Seat Ibiza," says O'Hagan, referring to a subcompact popular in Northern Ireland. 

"You can just about squeeze a fifth person into it. But it does me a world of good, and gets me from A to B, so I'm quite content."

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