Mmm, mmm, good! Chef Daniel Swift oversaw a delectable banquet of savoury sounds and musical fun as he steered the good ship Niagara Symphony “Down the Mississippi into the Bayou” Saturday night. On board for the fast-paced excursion was the Cajun quintet “Swamperella,” whose down-home no nonsense stylings (after their first set’s “Reel of Happiness” broke the ice and permitted the somewhat staid assembly to hoot, holler and clap prior to lining up for frozen dairy delights during intermission) sizzled and swayed throughout Sean O’Sullivan Theatre.
This is the type of program that brings Niagara audiences back for more: all concerned should be congratulated for lightening our spirits and warming our hearts—can spring be far away?
Canadian content came in the opener from Scott Macmillan’s pleasant arrangement of Acadian tunes. After stalling initially, the suite moved ahead well and was delivered with confidence, but the slight tunes were no match for the energy and drive of the composer’s Louisiana counterparts.
Unfortunately, Lampe’s “Creole Belles” was fully too fast by half, resulting in the artful syncopation of its “ragged time” being lost in the dust. Scott Joplin often complained that his Rags suffered from speeding—only his piano rolls know for sure. Similar to Bach fugues, the pulse should err on the side of clarity, allowing the inner rhythm to unfold as it will.
Following a smooth-flowing rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” the orchestral highlight of the evening unfolded through Thomson’s lean but satisfying snippets from Louisiana Story. From the opening muted strings of “Sadness” the tenor and tone of the program became more inward and thoughtful. Violist Marlene Dankiw-Bath and clarinetist Amrom Chodos acquitted themselves admirably in their solos. Swift’s fondness for all things related to the silver screen also seeped into the mix yielding a wonderful result. However, splitting the work into two sections (already cut down from the full eleven of the suite) and performed on either side of the break served the clock but not the art.
As lead fiddle, vocalist and artist in her other life, Soozi Schlanger oozes buckets of enthusiasm, zest and an infectious smile that makes it a pleasure to be in the same room. From the opening bars of “Bosco Stomp” it was clear that her vision and passion waere equally shared by the rest of the group. Peter Jellard’s one-row button accordion, whether pumping out the tune or punching up the chords was a constant pleasure. His own chart, “Single Rose Idaho,” was a bluesy number that permitted bassist Rachel Melas and drummer Dave Pontello to also strut their solo stuff. Like all seasoned musicians, not even the explosion of his bow’s horse hair (Jellard sings as well) made him drop a note, preferring to finish the “Acadian Blues” “col legno.” Bartók would be pleased!
At first, Pontello’s unvarying brushes on the snare made me wonder if he was actually plugged into a Rhythm Ace, but when he switched to stand-up triangle (take your pick: Tee Fer, Bastrinique or Cajun Triangle), I realized just how talented he is, keeping his colleagues dead steady with only two bits of spring steel: Bravo!
Following, “Satchmo” (where the mutes seemed to foil rather than add finesse to the brass), Swamperella took stage again and got the audience fired up completely with “‘tit Galop pour Mamou.” With Armstrong’s Dixie in my ears and New Orleans Cajun before my eyes, I was easily transported back to Palm Springs and one of the finest concerts I have heard in years from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (cross-reference below). Given time and stable personnel Swamperella could easily become as cogent as their senior colleagues.
Rather than the notion of the “Waltz of too many Goodbyes,” (their last number with the orchestra where all that the arrangement lacks is some discreet countermelody to give the band more of a presence) let’s hope that Swamperella returns soon for the “Reel of another Hello.” JWR