As Finbar Wright stood in New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum, once the gateway to the United States for millions of immigrants, he was struck by a sense of history.
“People have come here from every corner of the globe, so many of them from Ireland,” said Wright, one third of the PBS singing group The Irish Tenors. “It is in many ways hallowed ground.”
Participating in the Irish Tenors’ March 2001 concert at Ellis Island, hosted by Golden Globe Award-winning actor Martin Sheen, was “a real honor and a privilege,” Wright said. But it’s just one highlight in a career marked by bravado performances, best-selling albums and popular television specials.
Wright and his fellow tenors, Anthony Kearns and Ronan Tynan, bring their rich signature sound to the Central Coast on Friday, when they join 30 members of the San Luis Obispo Symphony for a night of holiday joy.
Just a part of life
Growing up in Kinsale, County Cork, on the southern coast of Ireland, music was “a natural part of life,” Wright recalled. “It was as natural as eating your breakfast or swimming in the sea or riding horses.”
The singer, whose father was a fan of Italian-American tenor Mario Lanza, began performing at age 6.
Two decades later, he attended the Cork School of Music — now part of the Cork Institute of Technology — and studied under a series of renowned performers including Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger, Romanian soprano Ileana Cotrubas and Irish vocal coach Veronica Dunne. Part of Wright’s formal training coincided with an eight-year stint as a Catholic priest.
After winning several awards at Feis Coil music festivals and the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1989, Wright launched his solo career in 1991 with the release of his platinum-selling debut album “Because.”
His sophomore effort, 1992’s “Whatever You Believe,” went triple platinum.
By the time producers Daniel Harte and Bill Hughes approached Wright in 1998 with the idea of creating an all-Irish singing trio in the vein of the Three Tenors — opera stars José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti — he was among Ireland’s most successful singers. Unfortunately, his recording contract with Sony BMG prevented him from joining the group.
Hughes and Harte eventually picked Canadian John McDermott to join Irishmen Kearns and Tynan. The Irish Tenors made their debut in the 1999 PBS special “The Irish Tenors — Live in Dublin.”
When McDermott left the trio in 2000, days before the filming of “The Irish Tenors — Live in Belfast,” the producers approached Wright once more. This time, he accepted.
Although a solo career has its advantages, it’s also hard work, Wright said.
“You stand on the stage and you have to perform on your own for two hours,” explained the singer, who has recorded six solo albums in all. “Working with three people makes the workload easier and more interesting.”
Performing with an orchestra “brings its own energy and its own life” as well, Wright added.
Over the years, the Irish Tenors have released nine studio albums, including 2009’s “Christmas” and 2010’s “Ireland,” and appeared in a handful of television specials. But it’s the trio’s international tours that keep them the busiest.
Sharing Celtic culture
This year’s holiday tour, which began Thanksgiving weekend in southeastern Connecticut and ends this week in San Luis Obispo, includes a musical tribute to beloved American pop singer Andy Williams.
“He always had that great vibrancy and enthusiasm and happiness about him in all his performances,” Wright said of Williams, who died in September at age 84. “That’s something we’ve tried to replicate ourselves.”
Also on the program are classic Christmas carols, traditional Irish tunes and sentimental favorites such as “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Toora-Loora-Looral.”
Of course, no concert is complete without the sweet, sad ballad “Danny Boy.” “If we didn’t sing it, we wouldn’t get to leave the theater,” Wright quipped.
For his part, Wright prefers offbeat holiday songs such as The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” Cole Porter’s “Well, Did You Evah!” and “The Christmas Song,” by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells.
He also has a deep connection with Ireland’s musical heritage, noting that natives of the island nation have always treasured their vocal and instrumental traditions. “They’ve survived centuries, and with good reason,” Wright said. “A lot of (that music) is very catchy and very interesting.”
Wright is looking forward to sharing Celtic culture with Central Coast audiences for a third time. The Irish Tenors previously performed in San Luis Obispo in 2006 and 2007.
“It’s a privilege when you see their faces in front of you,” he said of the group’s fans. “Sometimes they’re laughing. Sometimes they’re crying. ... The important thing is when they go out the door, they’re somehow enriched.”
IF YOU GO
The Irish Tenors
8 p.m. Friday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$34 to $75
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org
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