Alisdair Fraser and Natalie Haas Live

Alisdair Fraser and Natalie Haas
March 2, 2010
Iron Horse Music Hall
Northampton, MA

The evolving mastery of cellist Natalie Haas is a wonder to behold. The March 2 concert at the Iron Horse marks the sixth time I’ve seen Haas perform with Scottish fiddle nonpareil Alisdair Fraser, and I can recall those tentative first concerts in which she was essentially a rhythmic bass-like adornment for fiery Fraser reels. There’s still plenty of that; after all, when a fiddler lights it up—especially one as skillful as Fraser—there’s simply no way that a cellist can get up and down the neck that fast. Or is there? Haas is getting close and on her recent tour with Fraser she accomplished greased lightening runs that involved stretches of her hand that few people can do on a table in still motion, let alone racing down the strings without skipping a beat or hitting a sour note.

Haas has also grown in maturity in the sense that she now leads as well as follows, even to the point where she can correct the master when he’s off course. Fraser and Haas began their collaboration by exploring Scottish country dance music. In this mode, Fraser is a passionate imp who puckishly takes jigs, strathspeys, and reels, works their tempos, and fills in the spaces with individual notes of such pristine purity that they can leave one breathless. Haas serves as both frame and contrast—plucking her cello strings like a jazz bassist or bouncing the bow off them to provide resonant counterpoint.

Fraser and Haas still do a lot of this, but it’s largely drawn from their 2004 recording Fire and Grace. What has emerged since In the Moment (2007) is infinitely more complex. Cello and fiddle combos were once traditional in Scotland, but there can little doubt that many of the pieces Fraser and Haas now perform owe their arrangement style more to classical music than to village tradition. One of the finest examples of this is the duo’s take on a (very) slow reel titled “John MacDonald’s.” It has a drop-dead gorgeous melody in the raw, but Fraser opened it with notes so fragile and glass-like that they tinkled like crystal. When Haas added resonant bottom the effect was as if a musical tidal wave had washed across the hall. The two proceeded to weave tapestries in the air with colors that flashed and faded in the mind’s eye. When it was over one wished to scream “Bravo!” but that would have seemed gauche for such moments of delicacy and beauty.

And so passed most of the night, though Fraser offered plenty of comic relief with his sardonic stage chat, and he and Haas have the common sense to mix up the material. (A particularly delightful change of pace is their quirky “Alien Celidh”). There was also a nice moment in which Natalie’s younger sister Brittany, a fiddler with the “newgrass” group Crooked Still, mounted the stage to play along. I could ramble on tossing superlatives, but let this suffice: Even if you think you don’t like “Celtic” music (whatever that might be these days!), if Alisdair Fraser and Natalie Haas appear anywhere near you, go out of your way to see them. You will be astonished. See http://www.alasdairfraser.com/performances.html for touring schedules.

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