4/4/09

DREAMING OF NIEL GOW


Fraser and Haas in a 2004 performance in Stirling, Scotland.


Scottish fiddler Alisdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas walked silently to the sanctuary-turned-stage of Brattleboro, Vermont’s First Baptist Church on Friday night. They led with a lament so delicate that the audience was hushed and on the edge of their seats. A particularly beautiful passage from Fraser slid naturally over to Haas, who put aside sonorous tones in favor of rhythmic bops that invited Fraser to hurl himself into the rousing “Calliope Meets Frank” reels. When they finished, the room erupted in cheers.

With that done, Fraser jokingly announced that he and Hass intended to spend the evening “rummaging around in the Scottish condition.” For the next several hours the duo put on a performance that left a standing-room crowd uncertain whether they should howl with delight or stand in silent awe before the display of precision and majesty they had just witnessed. Fraser evoked the 18th century Perthshire fiddler Niel Gow, who used to perform with his brother Donald, a cellist. As Fraser explained, the idea that fiddle should be paired with guitar or accordion is of recent vintage; Scottish musicians once blissfully ignored the lines between Baroque, classical, and folk traditions. In that spirit Fraser and Haas proceeded to obliterate boundaries. Is “Valley of the Moon” a Scottish reel or free-form jazz? Is “Alien Celidh” an experimental composition or a dance tune with a funny name? Who cares? The evening was, by any standard one wishes to apply, one of the most stunning musical performances imaginable.

Now in their ninth year of touring, the musical dialogue between Fraser’s fiddle and Haas’s cello has matured without losing a flicker of the fire that first drew them together. Fraser plays with the seeming effortlessness that typifies the great masters, while Haas attacks her cello with gusto; after all, she has a lot more instrumental space to cover. She also plays with great confidence; little nods on the stage signaled the respect between tutor and former pupil, but small sideway glances also conveyed her independence. Haas’s solo introduction to “Josephine’s Waltz,” the tune that opened the second set, was particularly soulful and commanding.

The level of musicianship was so high that it’s almost a sacrilege to single out specific moments, but two come to mind. “John MacDonald’s Reel” is a lovely tune on its own, but Fraser and Haas slow it down to wrench primal emotion from it—short notes echoing each other as if being etched carefully on a sheet of thin glass. Another highlight was “Trip to Pakistan,” which Fraser cracked “opens the door for Scottish belly dancing.” Well … maybe not, but Haas was suitably bohemian and Fraser played it with rakish bounce.

Haas and Fraser have recorded two albums on the Culburnie label, Fire & Grace (2004) and In the Moment (2007). Each is a masterpiece, though neither is as good as witnessing a live performance. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough—go out of your way to see any project in which Alisdair Fraser is involved. Watching Fraser play is like attending a performance of Cirque du Soleil; you see it happen but you still can’t believe that it’s possible. --LV

1 comment:

gloria said...

Thanks, LV, for reminding me of their magic. I remember feeling as if I were watching a very intimate dialogue. Quite beautiful.