The emerging field of cultural tourism got a real-time example of its power with the visit by Ensemble Polaris to Niagara.
Thanks to the creative collaboration between the Gallery Players of Niagara and Primavera Concerts, the financial wherewithal came together, leaving the packed house awash in musical colours, historical myths and a better understanding of Scandinavia.
The eight-member ensemble (sporting two-dozen instruments and Katherine Hill’s alluring voice) played, sang and narrated through a covey of tales describing the lives, loves and longings of gods and giants as they cajoled, completed and copulated with one another (a same sex encounter had mighty Thor appear in drag to retrieve his, er, magical hammer from Thrym—who knew?).
The crowd was largely enthralled, only somewhat challenged by the inability of most to “see” the music being made. (Perhaps a page can be taken from Niagara-on-the-Lake’s St. Mark’s Anglican Church which now boasts an easy-to-assemble stage, improving sound and sight lines immeasurably.)
The narrative elements were delivered in turn by the performers to begin each segment. As varied as these spoken words were, the group has reached a level of musical excellence that demands the addition of an equally gifted actor to bring the stories to compelling life (and permit the assemblage to savour the text).
The opening set established the tone (Hill’s cow calling an early delight), culminating in an energetic “Animal Song” that may well have inspired the composer for the TV series Bonanza (marvellously at one with the bovine subject matter).
An instantly-engaging mix of nimble guitar (David Woodhead), svelte brushes (Jeff Wilson), lithe recorder (Alison Melville) and loose, easy-going clarinet (Colin Savage) set the storybook table for Odin.
Violinist Kirk Elliott’s compositional/arranging acumen (right to the last throw-away harmonic) had toes a tappin’ on both sides of the front pews.
What fun to hear about Freya’s own Rainbow Bridge figuring into her yarn of necklace envy even as Niagara’s connects fortune-seeking citizens across the Canada/U.S. divide.
A wee bit of untidiness was the only caution in “Valley Girls,” but that was soon forgotten when “Vals efter Vidar Lande” (replete with accordion and ever-enthusiastic bass clarinet) lifted off then closed the first half with one last cry from the world’s happiest cow.
Ben Grossman’s arrangement of the Hedningarna Set allowed the room to appreciate his hurdy gurdy ability atop a steady drone deftly anchored by Margaret Gay—at one point it seemed Erik Satie might be smiling broadly from above.
The finale successfully finished the concert with a pair of Polskas—the second of which held amazing moments of foreshadowing (Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring). Yes, there is not a lot new under the sun. As traditions are lovingly passed down (either aurally or captured in print) it’s little wonder that so many works of art have a familiarity that—like many of the instruments heard in this performance—goes back centuries.
Could Wagner have penned his Ring Cycle without the likes of Freya, the Brisingamen or shape-shifting Loki?
Three cheers to all concerned—everyone left St. Barnabas Church renewed and refreshed (and with a delectable piece of chocolate courtesy of Chocolates etc…) ready to walk back into the steady downpour of rain that—it seems, especially the monstrous floods of the Assiniboine and Mississippi Rivers—only the gods can stop. JWR