in: Reviews

March 4, 2010

Norman and Greenberg Meld the Scottish Baroque, Maritime Canada for CSEM

by

Ever in quest of repertoire and performers to enliven its nearly 60 years of concert presentation, the Cambridge Society for Early Music recast its tenets regarding performance authenticity to invite Maryland-born adoptive Canadian David Greenberg (violin, octave fiddle, Estey pump organ) and Nova Scotia native Chris Norman (flutes, Lowland bellows bagpipes, voice, Estey pump organ) to give the Society’s third five-concert series this season. The last of these evenings took place in the modest Weston Congregational Church on Friday, 26 February.

These two well-traveled musicians are convincing, entertaining ambassadors for the wide-ranging facets of early music, music of the Canadian Maritimes, and traditional Scottish music they played. Chris Norman’s deft and seamless flute playing in Weston was familiar to audience members who know his recordings with Helicon, the Baltimore Consort, and his own ensembles on Dorian Records. (To confuse our geography a mite, this son of Halifax now makes his home in Baltimore.) Once violinist David Greenberg had soared out of advanced study at Indiana University straight into steady work for Tafelmusik (Toronto), he settled in Ontario. He and two colleagues founded Puirt a Baroque (said: poorsht-a-ba-Roke) in 1994, with the intriguing goal of “connecting Cape Breton music with its roots in the Baroque era.” They’ve stirred up a fair bit of interest in this violin style not impossibly far removed from the Prince Edward Isle tradition made visible by Natalie MacMaster since the late 1990s.

<p>Octave Fiddle by Shep Jones, Fiddarci Lutherie   (Christopher Greenleaf photo)</p>

Octave Fiddle by Shep Jones, Fiddarci Lutherie (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

The CSEM program, entitled “Let Me In This Ae Night,” established the powerful ties between Scots tunes and songs a century either side of the 1746 Battle of Colloden (“The Forty-Five”) and their angular, rhythmically incisive cousins in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and eastern reaches of New Brunswick. Among the “old” Scots tunes were Thomas Moore’s mid-19th-c. “The Last Rose of Summer” and a traditional hit, “Bonnocks of Beer Meal.” Chris Norman sang the songs with easily parsed diction, often in variants that pointed out the rough use to which melodies were subjected as they were shared across oceans and borders. A fine, free sense of improvisation permeated each set of pieces. Listening to the duo’s new album release of this same program, one could not help but be struck by the consistency between their recorded harmonizations and those of this CSEM concert, which explained the remarkable fluidity of their exchanges. The audience were treated to sinewy weaving accompaniments, small, quick ornamentations, and melodic interplay that bespoke a good deal of hard work.

To further entwine the Maritimes, Scotland, and the Baroque, Norman and Greenberg dropped in two movements from a Telemann Duo in E and two movements each from Bach solo partitas for their instruments. The Telemann was sheerest pleasure, with its effortless tunefulness and sparely, brilliantly sketched harmonic framework. I must confess that none of the four Bach solos succeeded in defining a metrical home pulse; each player approached his chosen movements with a freedom that felt casual or willful, rather than concerned with the overall architecture and onward motion of the score.

One of the joys of the rekindling of interest in early music is instrument makers’ energy in rediscovering, copying, expanding on, and brilliantly departing from historic models. Much less visible has been the re-arrival of alternative, lost, and odd experimental instruments on the world folk scene. David Greenberg whisked his round-bouts octave violin, by present day Alabama luthier Shep Jones, off the table where it lay tuned to sail into a set of strathspeys and reels from Scotland and the Canadian Maritimes. Only after listener curiosity had been raised to the bursting point did he display all sides of this strange-sounding fiddle and explain its origins. Some 16 decades ago, William Sidney Mount, a New York Yankee with an irrepressible urge to improve on what 17th-c. Cremona had just plain failed to get right, unveiled his Cradle of Harmony, a baritone violin, now known as the octave violin. He waited for applause that never manifested itself. To a roughly conventional fiddle body add “fat” strings that play an octave lower than those of the violin. Curve a flattish belly and back markedly (see the photo), eliminate those pesky-to-craft bouts (the sharp-pointed violin waist), have at the thing with a bow of sufficient muscularity to excite it into coarse life, and you have an unforgettable instrument whose range lies between those of the cello and the viola. Such sound might erupt from a professionally executed cigar box fiddle. There is neither power nor depth, and yet the effect within an ensemble is a delight. The octave fiddle speaks quickly, so David Greenberg’s agile partnering of Chris Norman and his various sizes of flute left listeners with the impression of two lithely vocal lines with sweetly complimentary harmonics and interlocking, subtle fundamentals. This was magical, in fact.

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David Greenberg (v), Chris Norman (fl), and their Estey pump organ (Christpoher Greenleaf photo)

The other pleasantly spry survivor of an eclipsed era was the small, portable 1950s melodeon by the once furiously busy Brattleboro organ firm of Estey. Norman and Greenberg alternated at it, pumping cheerfully away, sliding its almost attackless harmonic and rhythmic part of the conversation beneath the melody instruments. Organologically inclined readers may know that our American pump organ, the melodeon, is a quiet, self-effacing keyboard instrument whose pedals operate twin bellows evacuating a lightly sprung reservoir (for vacuum winding), while the European harmonium uses much the same mechanism to pressurize a (usually exterior-sprung) reservoir. As bold a sound as it had, the 19th-c. harmonium enjoyed the attention of few composers: Rossini (Petite messe solennelle, 1869) and Dvorák (Five Bagatelles with 2v, vlc, Op. 47, 1878) being the best known. [In addition to Rossini and Dvorák, the French Orgue Expressif and German Kunstharmonium attracted the interest of a large number of composers, including Fauré, Vierne, Widor, Saint-Saens, Franck, Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg, to name a few. Indeed the first 12-tone composition was written for harmonium by Schoenberg’s rival Josef Matthias Hauer. (FLE)]

Today, JPP and other Scandinavian crossover string bands use the harmonium to devastating ensemble effect, as dozens of arresting CDs attest. The North American church melodeon, however, was little more than a cheap stand-in for the organ a congregation couldn’t afford. This particular type of pump organ attracted few composers, and only the thousands of them made by Estey and Mason & Hamlin, among others, for the roving missionary market and overseas military chaplancies kept the genus somewhat alive into the 1950s. As owners of copies of Greenberg’s and Norman’s spanking new album bearing this concert’s title have been hearing, the little instrument records well.

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful review Christopher. Just a few corrections and thoughts from the artists: Natalie MacMaster is not from PEI, but the pride and joy of Cape Breton, from Troy CB. I’m living in Lunenburg, NS these days. Did the Cambridge Society for Early Music in fact “recast its tenets regarding performance authenticity”? If so, it would be interesting to hear from CSEM on this subject, as ‘authenticity’ is such a loaded concept. Lastly, RE: Bach, in a program chock full of rhythmic dance music our chosen approach to the Bach (played with more freedom) is not casual, rather overtly offering contrast, a recognition of their context in that program, and that these compositions were not intended as actual dance music. Our feeling would be that it’s better to take some musical risks and respond to a room, an audience, and the surrounding parts of program than to play in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ manner. Thanks to all that made our visit to Boston a great success!

    Comment by Chris Norman — March 5, 2010 at 12:05 pm

  2. Another small correction: the final performance was in Cambridge on March 1 at Christ Church, Zero Garden Street. I enjoyed every minute of it, and was particularly impressed by the seamless transitions among the various styles included in the concert. The evening was brilliantly programmed and executed by the duo.

    Comment by Phyllis — March 5, 2010 at 5:33 pm

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