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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Magic Flutist

From the Vault Dept.: What I remember most fondly about my interview with Chris Norman, which took place over the phone, was his reaction to a unique piece of news I offered. My daughter had been born less than a month earlier, and the very first piece of recorded music she heard was one of Norman’s CDs. He was delighted to learn that. Here’s the article, a concert advance, that resulted from that call.


FLUTIST CHRIS NORMAN plays polkas and reels and other traditional dances with breathtaking joy and virtuosity. As a member of the Baltimore Consort, we’ve heard him recreate more formal music from centuries ago. Saturday night at the Troy Music Hall, he’ll combine those talents as he presents a program of classical music for traditional flute, in a performance with Argentina’s Camerata Bariloche.

Chris Norman
“The three pieces on the program are based on traditional folk tunes,” says Norman, “which you would sort of expect from me. Some of them I commissioned; one I sort of unearthed and worked on over the years.”

Norman is a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and counts among his earliest musical memories the Newfoundland songs his father played and sang. Canada’s maritime provinces have a wide range of unique music, much of it with a Gaelic flavor, so Norman commissioned Canadian composer Brian Packham to develop some of the themes from Cape Breton, which lies between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, into a work for flute and orchestra.

“I’ve known Brian for a long time,” Norman explains, “and he knows my playing very well. Although he has pretty much been a straight classical composer, he’s had a burgeoning interest in traditional music.” Norman provided cassettes of Cape Breton tunes and shared ideas about how those tunes are played, and Packham turned it into a three-movement work for flute and strings that has been performed several times already.

Reactions? “Some people think it’s gorgeous, fascinating, amazing. Some traditionally-minded people just think it’s too highbrow.” Norman gives a what-else-is-new? sigh. “It’s a lovely work. I think the second movement is a highlight – it’s a Cape Breton lullaby that he develops in a beautiful way.”

Irish-born composer-conductor Sir Hamilton Harty built an impressive reputation for the HallĂ© Orchestra in the 1920s, including many new works as well as his own arrangements of pieces like Handel’s Water Music. Although he spent much of his professional life in England, he celebrated his native country in such works as his Irish Symphony and a tone poem for flute and orchestra titled “In Ireland.”

“A student of mine was working on it and brought it to me,” says Norman. “He wondered how I’d make it more Irish. I’ve been playing it for the past few years, trying to do just that. I don’t think Harty was really in touch with the Irish musical tradition, even though he uses a couple of dance movements in this piece. So I see my job, as a performer who’s got a lot of experience playing traditional dance music, is to bring some of that to the flute part, and even try to get the strings to pick up on that as well.”

Norman is excited about working with Camerata Bariloche for that reason. “They’re more interested in living in the rhythmic space than a lot of American orchestras would be. They’ve cut their teeth playing tangos and dance music, and this particular group has a long association with Astor Piazzolla.”

Completing the program, which will be recorded for broadcast on NPR’s Performance Today, is “The Gaelic Flute” by Eddie McGuire. “He’s one of Scotland’s top composers these days. What he’s done here is a setting of eight or nine Gaelic love songs all associated with the sea, with some interesting orchestrations behind them. And the real Scottish character of them comes out beautifully. It’s real accessible writing, beautiful melodies, that suit the wooden flute perfectly, so I feel like I can really soar.” The three works also will be recorded by Dorian Recordings for a future compact disc release.

Even with several successful recordings in the catalogue, it’s a project Norman describes with excitement. “I love the challenge of bringing across my ideas about rhythm and dance music. And also being able to sing with the wooden flute, not only in a traditional role but also on the concert stage. I see people latching on to their own music more fervently than ever today, to their own musical traditions, whatever that may be. For all the hubbub you hear about homogeneity in our culture and society, what with the Internet and television and the world becoming smaller, it’s interesting that at the same time traditional Scottish music and Canadian music is being embraced and played with a fervor that I don’t think was there 20 or 30 years ago. I think that’s a great movement out there, and I’m happy to be part of it.”

Tickets for the 8 PM concert are $18, and can be reserved by calling the Troy Music Hall box office at 273-0038.

Metroland Magazine, 20 February 1997

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