Unconvinced that Charlotte was a hotbed for competitive fiddling enthusiasts, I was a little doubtful that a U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion would attract a substantial crowd to a “Christmas in Scotland” concert on a Monday night three days after the holiday. But as we drew up to the Great Aunt Stella Center on a sloppy evening, we noticed that the outdoor parking lot was full. So was the lower level of the nearby parking deck, and there was a bit of a crowd in the lobby, where we picked up our tickets. Jamie Laval last appeared in the Metrolina area back in October at Belmont Abbey College, more than two years after participating in a Classical Idol fundraiser on behalf of the Charlotte Symphony – perhaps on the strength of the Asheville-based violinist’s previous Metrolina foray at Davidson College in 2011. This Christmas gift from the mountains had no precedent, but there is no doubt that the Great Aunt Stella Center has established an enviable folk music cachet in Charlotte due to the series of free concerts that Charlotte Folk Society stages there monthly.
Ensuring that the event would be nothing if not colorful, Laval brought plenty of artillery to the occasion, including four instrumentalists, a budding young vocalist, and four dancers, who changed costumes at least four times during the concert. Further diversifying the musical palette, most of the musicians played multiple instruments. Both McLeod brothers, David and Michael, played bagpipes and the less punishing smallpipes, with Michael adding a drum and a pennywhistle along the way. For the most part, Rosalind Buda supplied a fluid obbligato and continuo on bassoon, but she also wended her way through a couple of bombards, a recorder, and an odd percussion instrument that could have begun life as a black canteen. Above all else, Buda read all the poetry selections beautifully, adorning them with a warm expressiveness and just a faint touch of dramatic flair. When he wasn’t flashing his championship fiddling bravura, Laval switched less impressively to strumming a guitar. But Laval was also a relaxed and personable host – his intros, anecdotes, and stories flowing so effortlessly that I sometimes lost track of when he crossed over from one type of spiel into another.
Yet there was nothing offhand about this concert. Laval’s craftsmanship was immediately apparent in the arrangement of the opening medley. Kelly Brzozowski began it with a lovely solo on the Celtic harp, introducing the “Wexford Carol,” and reminding me what a marvelous acoustic the Great Aunt Stella offers – something I’d quite forgotten since I last heard music there in 2001. We savored the sweet-sounding Ana Carolina Scott soon enough as she sang the ensuing “Angelus ad Virginem,” where we also heard our first sampling of the smallpipes. By the time we galloped into the fifth and final tune in this medley, “The Flagon,” we had seen most of the musical arsenal. With three wind instruments blowing simultaneously, the dynamic difference from the opening quiescence was startling.
The variety, contrasts, and unpredictability of the opening medley were mirrored by the entire program, which eventually covered more than 30 songs. Scott returned for three more vocals before intermission, beginning with a quiet rendition of a pre-Christian version of “The Holly and the Ivy,” accompaniment by harp and guitar with a couple of bassoon fills between stanzas. Assembling his program, Laval took a special interest in Celtic materials, melodies and lyrics that were eventually commandeered by Christianity – altering traditions rather than superseding them. That didn’t prevent Laval from utilizing a trio of young women from Atlanta’s Glencoe School of Highland Dance in further exploring Scottish folkways or from sneaking into North American tradition for a taste of Cape Breton step dancing with Amy Mooney.
After Buda and the McLeod brothers demonstrated how loud and make-it-stop irritating just three smallpipes could be on “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” things quieted down for the no-less-lively “Cape Breton Step Dance” featuring Laval’s infectious fiddling and Mooney’s percussive stepping. Mooney’s dancing was actually so percussive that she and Laval would trade two-bar solos with each other as Brzozowski accompanied on harp (with a few foot stomps of her own). All three Glencoe dancers then appeared in bright plaid skirts for their “Highland Dance Set,” accompanied by Luval’s fiddle and the McLeods’ smallpipes.
Return visits by the quaint trio didn’t wear out their welcome. The Glencoes next appeared in black outfits that were bedecked with colorful strips of fabric. Shaking bell sticks in both hands as they danced, they simulated a pair of wassail ceremonies designed to waken the apple orchards in the dead of winter and ensure the hard cider for the coming year. The next costume change was even more surprising as the Glencoe gals shuffled back onto the stage after intermission in sailor suits, doing mock battle with one another as the two bagpipers played the “Sailor’s Hornpipe” behind them.
While the smallpipes’ wind is supplied entirely by a small bellows pumped under the armpit, the bagpipes are fueled by both breath and bellows. Two of them, as was proven by the ensemble’s “Bessie Brown” just before intermission, can be even more make-it-stop loud than three smallpipes – with a rougher, more irritating sound at full blast. A rock concert sensibility would have been helpful, but I found that I’d acclimated well enough by the time we reached the evening’s final medley, finishing with the “Break Your Bass Drone” and “Flett from Flocca.” Meanwhile, Laval pursued his musical travelogue even more extensively than the ladies’ dance rounds, taking us to Orkney, Brittany, Coventry, Sussex, and Gloucester before we were done.
Most engaging of all was Laval’s extended excursion to Iceland, from where he brought us some diverting Yuletide legends and anecdotes along with three very entertaining songs. Withholding them until the end of the evening, Laval obviously knew the value of what he had. But he also edited prudently, beginning the “Icelandic Yule Lada,” the local equivalent of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” on Day 8. There are actually 13 days in the Icelandic tradition, and how that evolved was another narrative. Laval hadn’t sung audibly during the evening, and when he duetted with Scott in “The Wren in the Furze,” we could hear why, for his vocals were chiefly effective in contrasting with the beauty of Scott’s. The backstory of this song, traditionally sung on St. Stephen’s Day after Christmas, meandered into Icelandic history and how the wren became an icon for military betrayal before taking on a radically different meaning for the holidays. Basically, “The Wren” was the weirdest begging song I’ve ever heard.
The final medley began with the “Boar’s Head Carol” and ended with the entire audience clapping rhythmically as the musicians and dancers took their bows, both bagpipes blaring once again. Even that wasn’t a sufficiently emphatic return to Scotland, but Laval wasn’t guilty of an oversight. For an encore, the pipers and the harpist accompanied Scott as she sang “Auld Lang Syne.” I didn’t recognize Scottish laureate Robert Burns’ words – or his brogue – in the stanzas Scott sang, but when the ensemble answered with the refrain, all hearts were in the Highlands.