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Musica Pacifica: Dancing in the Isles

February 8, 2011

Musica Pacifica

Classical musicians don’t ordinarily record “albums” now; they record works. But Musica Pacifica’s Dancing in the Isles is an album.

Tracks succeed tracks with a scant second between, with nothing like the reverential 10-seconds-or-longer pause that’s conventional for classical music. Speaking of reverence, there’s none here — just a great deal of fun. There are names that listeners who care about 17th-century music will know well (Matthew Locke, Nicola Matteis, Henry Purcell), alongside names they won’t know (James Oswald, composer of a set of trio sonatas based entirely on “Scots Tunes,” is new to me). And then there’s a lot of traditional music of the British Isles, arranged either by the band en banc or by violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock.

Listen To The Music

Irish Lamentation

Three Parts Upon A Ground

The neat thing is that the “works” and the arrangements flow together so easily that you hardly know where a work ends and a set of arrangements begins. That’s partly because the arrangements themselves are so delightful. Musica Pacifica (here) has two violinists, a cellist, a recorder player, a percussionist, a harpsichordist, a player of plucked instruments, and a percussionist. With that combination, if you can’t make jollity, it’s your own fault.

Here there’s jollity aplenty, starting with the traditional Newcastle (arranged by the band), with violinists Blumenstock and Robert Mealy carrying on a vigorous dialogue, and ending with a seriously kick-butt performance of Purcell’s Three Parts Upon a Ground. I didn’t think that would work with one recorder and two violins, yet it does.

In between come slow interludes that show that someone has some fiddle background. Irish Lamentation is very close, notewise, to Ashokan Farewell, and here it’s played with much the same casual portamento familiar to audiences of the Ken Burns PBS series that used the latter tune as a signature. You get the same sort of sliding elsewhere on the disc. It’s delightful.

As is ... well, everything else. There’s so much invention, so much attention to orchestration. You can do a lot with a band like this one. Two violins in unison (assuming they can play in tune with one another, as Blumenstock and Mealy do) make a distinctive sound. A recorder player as resourceful and accurate as Judy Linsenberg can be at any of several octaves. Someone who plays both guitar and theorbo (like Charles Weaver) can add various spices to any stew. And someone who plays period percussion instruments well, and knows when to interject them (as Peter Maund does), is almost more valuable than Musica Pacifica’s extraordinary continuo team.

Everyone seems to get a solo turn, and every one is a hit: cellist/gambist David Morris in Scotch Cap, harpsichordist Charles Sherman in Byrd’s La Volta, and Linsenberg and Blumenstock (obviously) practically everywhere.

I should add that Mealy’s program note is so brilliant that I wish I could reprint it entire. The man who can toss off a casual line about Francesco Maria Veracini (who makes an appearance here via a sonata movement headed “scozzese,” which is to say “in the Scotch manner”) who moves to London after “an unfortunate incident involving defenestration in Dresden” is a writer indeed. I really do wish I had written that.

The “big” pieces here (the Locke and Matteis and Purcell) get performances as good as they’ve ever had. But the point of this CD is just to forget about composers and dance. If you find yourself thinking like a musicologist (as in “Is that thing in the Locke suite even vaguely plausibly a Sarabande”?), quit it; get up and move.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.


Any reviewer who responds to Musica Pacifica's CD by telling her readers to get up and move should have a blast exploring the world of English country dance. I hope Ms. Thomson and her readers find a local branch of the Country Dance and Song Society and dance up a storm.
(In the San Francisco Bay Area, the local CDSS branch sponsors many dances each month, all with live music. See for details.)

And in fact the recorder player Judy is scheduled to play for a dance this Saturday in San Francisco. Anyone with two feet is welcome to come see what it is like to dance to this music. As Sharon says -- see for details.