JWR Articles: Live Event - Don Messer's Violin (Featured performer: Frank Leahy) - November 2, 2005

Don Messer's Violin

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Fiddle feast proves frustrating to ear

On paper, the first Niagara Symphony Pops! program was a winner. Anytime Frank Leahy and his nimble band set foot on a stage is a cause for celebration—having many of their selections enhanced by full orchestrations should only be icing on the musical cake.

All the more reason to mutter aloud and agree whole-heartedly with Leahy’s comment, “You should hear it from where I’m standing.” If only we could!

Sound test report:

Lead violin: Leahy’s pick-up mic worked fine when orchestra was silent or soft; thousands of notes lost in Don Messer’s Fiddle Medley—seen but barely heard. Excursions into the audience a hoot (Vittorio Monti’s ever-popular Czardas—chock-a-block full of Paganini sizzle and expertly executed left-hand pizzicati) but ensemble with orchestra more miss than hit.

Piano/accordion: Tom Szczesniak’s flying fingers and punchy chords were constant pleasures, matching Leahy note for note where others would merely “vamp ‘til ready.” With no electronic assists for the accordion, his considerable artistry was too often confined to the very front rows and his colleagues, like a musical inside joke.

Guitar: Paul Chapman. Another stellar musician (the CBC at 50 chart a wonderful example) whose instrument was, necessarily, amplified but faded and soared into the total mix like waves on Lake Erie during a “blow.”

Acoustic bass: Much to the admiration of his symphony practitioners, Richard Homme’s decibel count fared the best of the lot. His one extended solo was brilliant and riveting; the rag, reel and two-step bass lines felt and just heard to perfection.

Drums Jay Reihl. Strategically positioned to monitor Daniel Swift and his own leader, Reihl left no doubt as to his skill set—especially the cymbal and bushes work—but otherwise seemed one setting too high on the over-all balance scale.

Orchestra: A monitor (speaker) sat on a plinth just to the right of Swift’s music stand—may have been more a hindrance than help. All of his guests played in front of him on the apron; some were mic’d, some not; the orchestra’s brass members were on risers, moving them closer to the acoustical shell than the rest of the players. All of that combined to deliver a multitude of micro-second delays and varying echo times, leaving only Leahy’s stomping foot as the definitive soundpost for the beat! This is why so many TV productions show the conductor ensconced in a head set: it’s harder to “mix” the orchestra before him, but much easier to keep tabs on the soloists beyond his care.

Let’s hope future Pops! come to terms with some of these aural challenges so that the talents of all concerned can be fully savoured.

Concert Companion

A new feature in JWR, and in conjunction the Niagara Symphony Association, newcomers to the subscription series concerts are invited to attend free of charge then offer their candid first-time opinion.

Our second volunteer is an early 40’s, Alberta-born editor/office manager who last heard The Magical Box (a Genesis clone band) in the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre.

JWR: What impressed you about the performance?

CC: I was very pleasantly surprised by how well Leahy’s music sounded with an orchestra in the background, although the brass over-powered him. Maybe that was because they were in for such a short time they decided to give us our money’s worth! Leahy talked a bit too much about how he came to own Don Messer’s violin and the train story didn’t work, but the bird music that followed [“Hot Canary”/“Yellowbird”] more than made up for it.

JWR: Any pieces stand out particularly?

CC: It’s a toss up between the haunting “Summertime” and the Cape Breton Medley for my favourite. I would have preferred to hear even more Down East music—that’s what I’d expected. The sing-a-long fell flat but was more than made up for by Leahy’s incredible playing—he was magical with the violin; you wanted the rest to go away. And he was so into the family, the “Ode to Ray Senior” [father-in law] and “My Lady Lisa.” What a very special gift—especially on a wedding day!

JWR: Would you go back for another concert?

CC: Sure would! With that type of music, I could see my family and friends coming along and enjoying it too. It was so good to see such a wide age-range—these concerts are most definitely family events. JWR

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Conductor - Daniel Swift
Featured performer - Frank Leahy
Keyboards - Tom Szczesniak
Guitar - Paul Chapman
Drums - Jay Reihl
Bass - Richard Homme
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