The seemingly unlikely bedfellows of Scottish traditional and Baroque music had me intrigued, as did the interesting venue, the showroom of The Flute Tree in the Sydney inner West suburb of Leichhardt.
The Evergreen Ensemble (violin, viola, cello, bass & theorbo/guitar) is of a Scottish bent but plays on traditional Baroque instruments, one carbon fibre cello not withstanding. They were joined by two Cape Breton folk musicians, Chris Norman on flutes and traditional pipes and David Greenberg, an ex Tafelmusik violinist, on Cape Breton fiddle. The Melbourne based group has presented this concert around various locations in Victoria and NSW.
The program included loosely knit medleys of various traditional tunes, both Scottish and from the Cape Breton region in Canada intermingled with Baroque music. The Scottish composer James Oswald featured heavily, but somewhat less Scottish composers like Henry Purcell and Thomas Tallis (who is also less Baroque) got a guernsey too.
Much of the joyful, exuberant enthusiasm and dance-like character of the traditional reels and jigs flowed over readily into the Baroque performances. Norman also applied some folkish flutter finger ornamentation to classical offerings.
In preparation for a performance of a New England tune called “The Shepherd’s Star”, we were treated to some interesting musicological explanations about “shape note” notation of vocal music dating back to the middle ages. We were also given a good bit of background on the Lowland traditional “small” pipes, with, in this case, their belt mounted bellows. It is mercifully a much gentler sound to its Highland cousin, although its mixolydian chanter is the same. It is what Norman referred to as “the marriage saver”. Three traditional tunes were played in medley on this instrument with non-traditional accompaniment; “Lincoln Doddy”, ” Pawkie Adam Glen” and “Wee Totum Fog”.
There were some gorgeous melodies amongst the traditional offerings. Especially wonderful was Chris Norman’s own composition for solo flute called “The Flower of Port Williams”. He wrote this ecstatic piece in the memory of his mother and, although melancholic in character, it is ultimately more a celebration of life.
There are many concurrences between Scottish traditional and Baroque musics, but hearing the styles juxtaposed brought to light an interesting observation on account of one being an oral/aural tradition and the other written. The traditional music was mainly about the melodies and these were often of great sophistication and beauty. In the European classical tradition however, when you write ensemble music down, the possibility of much greater sophistication in harmony is opened up. Although there are harmonic conventions in the traditional music, the same level of harmonic complexity and interest is not possible when everyone is improvising around a tune. This is what really sets the two musics apart.
A quick word about the venue, because it was new to me. The “Flute Tree” is the workshop and showroom of The Woodwind Group. In the spacious showroom we were surround by glass display cases of flutes of various description and the obligatory signed poster of Jimmy Galway on the wall, looking magisterial. There was a grand piano tucked away in the corner, unused in this instance, so obviously this is not the first concert they have held here. It is a lovely intimate venue which seats 50 or so. I hope to hear more music there.
The eclectic mix of music in this concert was a good light hearted toe-tapping experience. They would do well at Woodford; catch them if they appear in your glen.