Fiddling up a storm
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., August 26, 2003) – The violin isn’t exactly an unsung instrument, so the need for a concert at Tanglewood to pay tribute to the instrument -- as Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart explained was the intent of Monday night’s “Fiddlers Three” program in the Shed – is a little dubious. To be fair, Lockhart was referring to the diverse purposes to which the instrument is applied, not only in classical music but in folk and jazz, and it’s true that for the most part during the Boston Symphony’s season at Tanglewood, the non-classical styles get short shrift (although astute listeners know that pre-20th century composers drew heavily on folk music for inspiration, and many, if not all, modern composers were and are downright obsessed with jazz).

Perhaps as Lockhart, conducting the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra on Monday night, explained, the fact that the 2002 “Evening at Pops” telecast of this program on public TV won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award goes further to explain why the program was inserted into the Tanglewood schedule. That just a few dozen concertgoers short of 11,000 turned up for the event -- featuring Lara St. John, Regina Carter and Eileen Ivers, three fiddlers who are young virtuosos in their respective fields -- could also have been a factor, certainly proving in hindsight the wisdom of having programmed the crossover concert.

And then, simply, there was the fun factor – after the symphony season proper had ended, for the players and audience alike to let their hair down and have fun with some “less serious” music vaguely attached to a theme to give it intellectual justification.

And fun was had, with a cheery Lockhart -- less than 36 hours from celebrating the birth of his new baby boy – guiding the proceedings with a deft hand. He kicked off the program with another tribute of sorts, marking the birthday of Leonard Bernstein with a bouncy, lively version of the overture to “Candide” and with three jazzy dance episodes from Comden and Green’s “On the Town.”

Sporting her trademark blue violin, Irish-American fiddler Eileen Ivers, a star of “Riverdance,” was first up, playing a solo air before her band and the orchestra kicked in with a reel incorporating Latin percussion. Ivers was a vibrant performer, running over to her drummer and trading phrases with him, even using her bow to hit a cymbal (talk about violin diversity!) before leaping off the drum riser to bring her “Immigration Suite” to a close. On “The Blizzard Train,” she demonstrated the close relationship between Irish fiddling and Appalachian music, as an orchestra full of violinists did their best to sound like fiddlers.

After a quick orchestral run-through of “All That Jazz” from “Chicago” that, with little variation, flogged the melody to within an ounce of its life, jazz violinist Regina Carter and her ensemble joined the orchestra. Carter’s playing on Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” and George Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good” was luscious and rich, emphasizing upward bent and stretched blue notes and Stephane Grappelli-derived gypsy jazz, quoting “Flight of the Bumblebee” and “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in the latter tune as she made her way up and around the fret board while the orchestra swirled around her. Unfortunately, Carter chose to play her violin amplified through the p.a. system, confining what would have been a resonant tone to the inside of a box.

The 20-something, leggy Canadian violin sensation Lara St. John stood a head taller than Ivers and Carter in more ways than one in her set piece, the “Carmen Fantasie” based on themes from the Bizet opera. She made the most of this dizzying, dazzling showpiece, digging into the gaudy themes with an unabashedly gaudy presentation that seemed to say, “I know this is silly, but I’m going to milk it for all it’s worth,” and she did.

All three violinists and the orchestra joined forces for the final number, Chris Brubeck’s “Interplay,” commissioned specifically for the original “Fiddlers Three” broadcast. The piece began with each violinist playing a simple rhythm that demonstrated their unique stylistic approaches, before Carter resolved it into a spiritual-type melody which Ivers then brought to Ireland. The players then traded phrases with each other, answering with their particular styles and accents with innocuous backing by the orchestra, before St. John stole the number away from the trio with her blistering cadenza.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 27, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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