Renowned string duo Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas brought the sound of Scotland — both traditional and modern — to Quincy during their concert at the Town Hall Theatre Sept. 28. This show, presented by Plumas Arts, marked the third time they have played in Quincy; previous appearances were in 2006 and 2018.
“Plumas Arts likes to bring music to town that folks might not get to see otherwise,” said Plumas Arts Executive Director Kara Rockett-Arsenault. “It’s an honor to be able to share these types of performances with the community.”
The concert opened with a medley of tunes from Fraser, who plays fiddle, and Haas, who plays cello. After the initial applause, Fraser introduced the unusual combination of instruments by teasing the audience, saying he knew what they were thinking: “‘What’s going on here? Where’s the guitar? Where are the bagpipes?’ Actually, no one ever asks that,” he joked.
He went on to explain that fiddle and cello were the traditional “dance band” of past centuries and that he and Haas are reviving that sound while also giving it a modern twist with their own compositions. “We have 300 years of music to get through tonight,” he said. “Draw close and get cozy in the kirk. Gather for the ceilidh.”
The two instruments, similarly shaped but with different voices, wove a variety of musical interactions throughout the evening. Often the fiddle took the melody and the cello provided harmony. But sometimes the cello provided a resonant rhythm like a hand drum, or a more delicate plucked counterpoint. At other times the melody moved to the cello’s lower register, and sometimes the two combined to evoke the sounds of a reed instrument like, yes, bagpipes.
The combination’s traditional use as a provider of dance music soon became clear to the audience of about 140, as those in the theatre tapped feet, clapped hands, and even danced in the aisles. Between songs, Fraser and Haas shared stories and anecdotes on topics ranging from Fraser’s boyhood in Scotland to the day’s travels, including the “beautiful, stunningly gorgeous” drive into Quincy.
“It’s an honor to be able to share these types of performances with the community.”Kara Rockett-Arsenault, executive director, Plumas Arts
The two also shared some of the history behind the songs they played, explaining how “these tunes get around.” The same historical melodies have been traded between Scottish and Irish traditions, and were also transplanted to places like Brittany, France; Cape Breton Island, Canada; and the Appalachian Mountains, being further developed in each new place. Their own 27-year touring partnership evokes this melding: Fraser, who is from Scotland, has joined forces with Haas, from California.
Haas shared an example from Appalachia, in which Scottish and Irish immigrants brought melodies from their homelands, which then combined with the banjo and the rhythms that enslaved people had brought from Africa. “It’s a living tradition,” said Haas. “It’s so wonderful that we can dip into the well but also contribute.”
In echo of the evening’s pattern of juxtaposing music with often-comedic anecdotes, Fraser presented his song “The Dreamer and the Jester” as a kind of life philosophy. On the one hand, he said, he is “paying my respect to music” as the dreamer. “We need music,” he said. “It’s therapeutic and motivational.” But he also emphasized the importance of “remembering to laugh, not superficially but deeply and archaically.” He spoke of the archetypes of the medieval jester and the Native American Coyote figure, who laugh at themselves and are thus “custodians of the truth.”
Toward the end of the performance, Fraser returned to the theme of the ceilidh, a Scottish or Irish social gathering that includes music, dancing, and storytelling. “There’s this thing that human beings do really well,” he said: “We gather.” He encouraged everyone to “keep gathering, keep playing the tunes, dance until 5 in the morning!”