March 6, 2007 at 9:34 AMBonnie Rideout, one of the world’s greatest traditional Scottish fiddlers, is a musician I have heard several times, and I’ve been fortunate to take a course from her. She has put together a group of Scottish folk musicians called Caledonia, and I had the great thrill of hearing them perform live last week. Some of the members of Caledonia are world class soloists in their own right: John Doyle (guitar and cittern*), William Jackson (Scottish harp and whistles), and Jerry O’Sullivan (Uilleann pipes**, small pipes***, whistles, and flute). Other members of the group are Mairi MacInnes, a Gaelic singer from the Outer Hebrides who didn’t learn to speak English until she started school; Matthew Bell, percussionist; Christine Hanson, cellist; Roy Munro, folk singer; and Sara Lyons and Ellen Wilkes-Irmishch, Highland dancers.
One of the first tunes on the program was a slow air by Neil Gow, an eighteenth century Scottish fiddler and composer, which Bonnie played with the cellist. They started with the cellist playing melody and Bonnie playing harmony a few octaves higher, an unusual arrangement which is difficult to play well, but they did it beautifully. In another difficult maneuver which they handled very gracefully, Bonnie switched to melody and the cellist played harmony in lower registers, a more common practice. The variety of expression put a new spin on a beautiful air, making it striking and beautiful.
Most of the high energy tunes featured the Highland dancers, but I felt that the dancing was the weakest part of the program.
Bonnie announced that she would play The Reel O’Tullough, a tune fiddlers especially like to play. She’s right. I love to play it with its set of variations by James Scott Skinner, an outstanding nineteenth century Scottish fiddler and composer. In fact, I bought Skinner’s book of sheet music, The Scottish Violinist, mainly for the variations on this reel. They include all kinds of fun and crazy things, such as jumping back and forth quickly between the G and E strings, turning runs of eighth notes first into sixteenth notes and then into triplets, double stops, changes in accidentals, and occasional pizz interjected quickly in arco passages. I love to play this piece, and I do it reasonably well, but Bonnie blew me away. She did everything so much cleaner and quicker than I did, and she added variations that weren’t in the book. It was exciting to hear her. Caledonia kept playing one very rhythmical, high energy tune which I know, love, and play, but I couldn’t remember the name. The program mentioned a set of Shetland reels, so I looked them up when I got home and found that the tune that almost picked up the audience and carried them away was Sleep Soond Ida Moarnin’ (Sleep Soundly in the Morning). Another high energy tune that really animated the dancers – and some of the audience, too – was Crossing the Minch, a tune I love to play. It’s got some wild triplets.
The concert wouldn’t be complete without a Robert Burns song, and the group performed one of my favorites, “A Man’s A Man for A’ That”. The singer/guitarist started, and he was soon joined by a whistler and cittern player in the most upbeat performance of that song I’ve ever heard. By the end of the song, all the musicians were singing or playing along, and the mood was positively exuberant.
Bonnie pulled a real tour de force by explaining and playing a piobaireachd (pronounced something like pibro), a traditional form of Scottish music which describes a battle in symbolic sounds, visions, and emotions. She played Marsail Lochinalie – A Fiddle Piobaireachd by James Oswald (1710-1769). There is very little melody to this piece, but it held me spellbound. As Bonnie explained before playing it, you can hear a light wind blowing; soldiers gathering and marching, ever louder as the battalions grow in size; the initial shot; the cacophony of the battle; and, finally, the eternal sadness for those killed. The music was unlike anything I had heard before. I found it very vivid and moving. Bonnie will not be touring in the 2007-8 season because she will devote her time to working on piobaireachds and slow airs.
I came home from the concert in a Scottish glow, and I’ve been playing some of those fiddle tunes for days. I also bought Bonnie’s CD Scottish Inheritance, which I love. I’ve been listening and trying to play along with parts of it. Bonnie’s music just won’t let go of me.
Some notes on terminology:
*The cittern is like a mandolin, but larger and tuned one octave lower.
**Uilleann pipes are a traditional Irish instrument. They are much smaller than the better known Scottish Highland pipes or great pipes. They are inflated by pressing a small set of bellows with the right arm, rather than by blowing with the mouth. They sound sweeter and quieter than most other bagpipes.
***The small pipes are traditional Scottish pipes which are similar to the Uillean pipes.
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