Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas concert, Chapel Hill
I rarely go to live events but this one was too good to pass up. Alasdair Fraser is an amazing fiddler. I have his first album, made almost 30 years ago, with just him in that highland getup in an oval cameo on the cover, accompanied by what I identified at the time (being more of a snob back then) as a fairly cheesy ceilidh-style backup band.
He's made thirteen more recordings since then, with various partners. I loved his work with pianist Paul Machlis and treasure their recordings Skyedance and The Road North. Other pairings left me kind of cold - old-time guitarist and stickler Jody Stecher didn't do much for me backing Fraser ...
... but Natalie Haas is a goddess.
Fraser told the packed audience last night he first met Natalie when she was 11, at one of his Valley of the Moon fiddle camps. He made his first album with her in 2004 and they tour together a great deal.
Haas - a Juillard graduate who's toured with Mark O'Connor, and with fellow goddess, fiddler Natalie MacMaster, and who teachers at the Berklee School of Music - sparkled and glowed last night, young and gorgeous and strong, sitting on her throne in center stage. I loved her throne, a raised platform with a raised piano bench on it, bringing her head closer to the level of Fraser's. She couldn't speak a word (no mic) but Fraser, who had no lack of things to say (he's a good storyteller) communicated with her delightedly as he fiddled round the throne. He had a wireless mic and she plugged in from below so there were no mic stands in the way, what a great use of technology!
This detail from a 1780 David Allan painting called Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl was presented to me in the 1980s by my beloved mentor, Royal Scottish Country Dancemaster Carl Wittman, when I was first playing for him. He loved a period sound for his dances and hated ceilidh bands (think "rollicking" and you know what that word, pronounced K-lee, implies). This picture was his proof that Scottish reels and jigs and strathspeys do NOT need the involvement of an accordion.
Once in a while I've had the opportunity to fiddle with a cellist. The great thing is: the bows. Speaking together, conversing in the ancient and magical language of bows, breathing and scraping and wailing together the way only bows can. Bows are way cool.
Fraser asked us rhetorically last night: "Scraping hair from a horse's tail across cat guts - who ever thought that one up?" Fraser and Haas are both black-belt-masters of the bow - they can sound like half of the world's most wonderful string quartet as they suddenly draw down from wildness to silence. They decelerate their bows in perfect tandem and then milk the silence - wait for it, wait for it... - the audience is still as stone, we hold our breath together, drinking it that bold momentary silence.
I should also mention they have wonderful instruments and that the sound in the Community Church of Chapel Hill concert, co-sponsored by Pinecone, the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music was magnificent. The church used to have dreadful acoustics but they've done something marvellous to it and now it would be a wonderful place to hold a chamber music concert series.
The applause all night was deafening and we jumped to our feet to give them a standing ovation when they were finished. They dallied coming back to us - wait for it, wait for it - then loped back on stage and finished with some reels with the help of their opening act The Shamrockers. Fraser even got his sedentary audience on their feet and tried to teach the rapturous crowd to dance. There were plenty of country dancers and cloggers among us and as the musicians played the night down there were great dancers, young and old(ish), at the front of the hall and even on stage. Wonderful!