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Chris Norman Ensemble

Review by Anne Bergstrom

Chris Norman Ensemble

Chris Norman brought his ensemble to the Indian River Festival on a rare cool night inside St Mary’s Church, but they soon turned up the heat with their lively playing. The concert was called The Caledonian Flute, as its theme was music of Scotland. Norman is one of the best Celtic flute players anywhere, and he demonstrated his skill on four different types of wooden flute and on the small pipes, a miniature relative of the bagpipe. He is a virtuoso on each instrument, sweeping the listener along with his expressive playing, whether soulful slow airs or finger-busting dance tunes. It was the group’s premiere performance on the Island, but hopefully not the last. He has an almost magical ability to communicate through these lovely, mellow instruments.

Norman told the audience that in Scotland in the early and mid-eighteenth century, the flute was wildly popular, maybe even more than the fiddle. Listening to his group, this was not hard to believe. The concert opened with a medley, beginning with a “classic” tune called “The Thistle” by James Oswald, written about 1740. This was played on baroque flute, viola da gamba, mandola and harmonium, and was followed by various dances found in the Northern Highlands.

Some of the tunes were reels adapted from accordion music of Québec written in the 1920s. Norman pointed out that the small pipes were also in the French mode with a Moorish influence. He said the pipes are not easy listening—more like “difficult listening.” One piece was a drinking song, “On Sussex Down,” introduced by bass player James Blachly, also an excellent singer, who got the audience joining in on the refrain.

The bonus for the player of small pipes is that one can sing along—the pipes are powered by air from a bellows and a small bag under the arms, and the notes fingered on the pipe, leaving the mouth and breath free to sing. This made the song quite rousing when all four of the group joined in.

The other fine musicians were Andy Thurston, guitar and mandola, and Nick Halley, who moved form harmonium to piano to various percussion instruments. The most interesting of these were a caxixi, a basket shaker from Brazil, and two types of ankle bells which provided a counterpoint to drum rhythms. Since they weren’t visible, one began to wonder where the jingling sounds were coming from. Halley was adept at multiple rhythms.

A poignant song, “When First I went to Caledonia,” was about emigrating to Cape Breton (Caledonia). Norman played a cherry wood flute in A, with an alto sound, and he and Blachly also sang. Norman is a native Nova Scotian, but I don’t think he’s related to the fellow mentioned here:

When first I went to Caledonia,
I got on loading at Number Three,
I went to boarding with Donald Norman,
He had a daughter that made good tea.

The evening wound up with an encore, a flashy, fluty showpiece adapted from an accordion piece by Québec’s Jo Privat. The Indian River audience isn’t much for clapping along, but was definitely an appreciative crowd for this stellar, original ensemble.

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