Invitingly titled, “Uncharted Waters,” (marvellously at one with the house program’s whimsical cover art by Loree Ovens) the good ship Ensemble Polaris dropped anchor in St. Catharines for a program filled—in the words of Gallery Players president David Little—“unusual, weird instruments” and featuring music of “the chilly North”—most certainly not just confined to Canada’s.
Having now heard this intrepid band twice in the wood-rich acoustic of St. Barnabas Church (cross-reference below), it’s time to take stock of its repertoire, performers and future—the first two have plusses and minuses; the latter of those, once remedied, will propel this distinct musical organization into the next level of excellence and vastly enlarge its followers and admirers without any need for tweets or likes.
While many of the selections are faithful to the apparent artistic mandate (the opening pair: “Dalmarschen” and “Jungfrun och näkken” setting the instrumental stage and vocally rendered storytelling respectively) the excursions to sunnier, cinematic climes (a pair of Nino Rota’s happily absurd creations for Federico Fellini, deftly arranged by Marco Cera) warmed all souls present but felt like mission drift: a chart from Astor Piazzolla seemed the next logical step down that path.
While Russia has vast expanses of Polaris-like real estate, there was little gained other than parody from Colin Savage’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Mirlitons” (aka “Dance of the Reed Flutes”). Slipping in the kazoo added insult to injury in what was a pre-recording studio performance. Hopefully by the time the microphones are switched on the untidiness of “shifting gears” will be remedied. Definitely Not the Nutcracker (the coming album’s title) in more ways than one. Decidedly on the other hand, the warm waltzer, “Bandura” (especially effective use of the flexibility of cello and musical saw) along with the technical flashes bursting out of “Not the Wind” brought everything back to the overarching artistic intent.
Necessarily (given the physical setup of the church) stretching the eight musicians out, more or less, in a row accounted for some of the ensemble lapses. To be sure, this is in the quibble category but tightening up offbeats in the faster strains and finding the rhythmic centre sooner (“Valley Girl” didn’t totally settle until far after the opening duelling recorders finished their sizzling foray) will be rewarded with edge-of-their-seats listeners and cries for more! Having those who could stand as they performed went a long way to solving the visual challenges.
Alison Melville and Savage provided the single-wind colourings and, together, crafted one of the finest melodic interplays of the concert (“You Lovely Island”). Switching to bass clarinet, Savage inadvertently overpowered his colleagues on several occasions, likely due to the acoustical result “on stage” compared to the final “mix” that reaches the audience. Kirk Elliott’s accordion lines added much to the rainbow of colours; his in-the-aisle Swedish bagpipe was mercifully mellow and the ideal introduction to “Bright Face, Round Face.”
As to the strings, Elliott did yeoman’s service on the violin, bouzouki and mandolin, ably complemented, supported and assisted by Marco Cera (“Pasquale” was a dreamy, heart-on-the-sleeve gem). Whether laying down the relentless bass lines (“Beetroots” threatened to morph into “Take 5” in different garb) or drawing the crowd into her special world of effortless legato (“Tarengue” was a superb example), Margaret Gay contributed significantly to the program’s success.
Percussionist Debashis Sinha has artfully mastered the old adage that the rhythm section ought to be felt rather than heard; his brushes work was delectable. Jeffrey Wilson was admired by all for his soaring musical saw; a smaller triangle and tighter backbeats could only improve his otherwise fine contributions to the “engine.”
Vocally, Katherine Hill was more distant than the 2011 performance, requiring extra support and sustained vowels to effectively balance her instrumental colleagues. When taking the wee bow to the nyckelharpa, her interventions were welcome at every turn.
The future for Ensemble Polaris looks promising indeed. Without doubt the collective talent is there and arranging their own music ensures a distinctive sound (Melville’s “Beetroots” being a prime example as well as Cera’s take on “Not the Wind”). Reflecting on the whole, the most elusive element at the moment is a shared personality. Frequently, the music comes across a tad studied or cautious. Once everyone can anticipate each other’s flights of fancy then push or pull as required, this group will forever slip the bonds of barlines and deliver their true north strong and freely. Is there a captain in the house? JWR