- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

She’s been compared to WETA music host Mary Cliff, but Mary Sue Twohy is more than just another mellifluous-sounding radio voice. She’s a producer, a promoter, a musician and a singer-songwriter in her own right, who recently spent many hours sifting through folk music from the 1940s to the present.

“Every decade has its own charisma,” says Miss Twohy, who will be appearing at Baldwin’s Station in Sykesville, Md., tonight along with David A. Alberding. “It’s been so neat to rediscover the songwriters behind the familiar songs I grew up with.”

The Mary Cliff comparison comes from Miss Twohy’s gig as a host for XM satellite radio, where her show features six hours of contemporary folk music with an audience of about 6 million.

Originally from New Jersey, Miss Twohy came by her songwriting naturally, thanks to her father, who composed his own tunes “for fun and for church.” The family still has one of her first compositions, scrawled on some paper when she was in grade school.

“It was all about the galaxy,” laughs Miss Twohy. “Even then, I was trying to be a songwriter.”

Over the years, she’s also made her way through various musical instruments, earning an award from the Berklee College of Music for her improvisational jazz work on the tenor sax when she was in high school. Today, of course, she’s more at home on guitar and piano.

The gig at Baldwin’s though, will be something of a first.

“We’ve known each other for years, but we’ve never split the bill before,” says Miss Twohy of Mr. Alberding. “So we’ve been working on how to fit into each other’s songs.”

Among Miss Twohy’s compositions are several that are set to words by Emily Dickinson.

“I didn’t touch the words at all,” says Miss Twohy. “Her poetry really works for music.”

In another venture, Miss Twohy incorporated parts of Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” into “Snowing,” an original piece of her own.

“It’s about finding hope in the darkest moments that we have,” says Miss Twohy, who crafted the piece after being diagnosed with hearing loss in November 2004.

• • •

Meanwhile, hammered-dulcimer master Karen Ashbrook celebrates her 30th anniversary in the music business with a special concert Monday at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Rockville for the Institute of Musical Traditions that provides a kind of object lesson of her performing arc.

“The program brings together most of the people who were important to my evolution as a musician,” says Miss Ashbrook, who built her first hammered dulcimer while in high school in upstate New York and is considered one of the premier teachers of the instrument in the country.

She’s largely a self-taught musician, having learned her craft mainly from practicing musicians while traveling in Europe and Asia.

“I learned most of my music off records and from musicians in pubs,” she says.

She moved to Washington in the early ‘80s to join the flourishing Irish music scene here. She, harpist Sue Richards and vocalist/guitarist Connie McKenna teamed up as Ceoltoiri (pronounced “kyul-tory,” Irish for “musicians”), which enjoyed widespread critical acclaim as a performance-driven ensemble that easily transcended musical boundaries.

The members of Coeltoiri have all gone on to other things, but they’ll come together again for Monday’s performance.

Miss Ashbrook began exploring Jewish music with the band King David’s Harp in the mid-‘80s. (Band member David Scheim is the pianist on her CD “Hills of Erin.”)

“It’s sort of a Jewish version of Ceoltoiri,” says Miss Ashbrook, who will be reuniting Monday with those band members as well.

More recently, she’s been performing with husband Paul Oorts, featuring the music of Belgium.

Over the years, her instrument has evolved along with her range. Her use of dampers on the dulcimer has allowed her to employ a more percussive and syncopated style.

“It allows all kinds of rhythmic textures,” she says. “What I do now brings in a lot more influences.”

But she’s still true to her Irish music beginnings, hosting summer camps and sessions for up-and-coming young musicians.

“When I was learning, the old-timers were so happy someone wanted to hear them play,” she says. “I want to do my part for the next generation.”

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