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Music @ St. Alban's opened its 2016-2017 season on Sunday at 3:00 pm with the music of Poisoned Dwarf, a group specializing in the traditional music of the British Isles. Using a variety of instruments, Poisoned Dwarf infused some fresh ideas into the centuries-old tunes in the beautiful space of St. Alban's.
Poisoned Dwarf could not have asked for a better space for their five-man band. St. Alban's open atrium, with its ample and varied seating, not only provided a visual treat for each audience member but also allowed the acoustic instruments to be heard as is, with no amplification. The ease with which the players could switch unhindered between instruments set the stage for a perfectly timed show without many pauses in between pieces. Another smart move of the band was not providing a program of music. Rather, they listed a possible list of songs from which they would choose the performance. Occasionally, they announced a piece or explained the background, but by allowing the show to be open-ended, the audience could just sit back and enjoy. So often, I see the audience buried in their programs. I put mine in my bag, and sat back and enjoyed.
While the logistical presentation of the show was impressive, the true brilliance came from the playing. What particularly impressed me about Poisoned Dwarf's performance was their fantastic blend of sound and superb intonation. The flute player, Thomas DeRose, joined the color and pitch of the other instruments so well that if I had not been watching him, I would not have known he had started playing! In addition, each instrumentalist on stage had at least three instruments listed next to his name, and each played every single instrument with expertise. Some were traditional – flutes, whistles, drums – while others were so rare that I had never even heard of one. The sackbut made an impressive appearance at the end of the show, but it was the uilleann pipes of Ireland that met a new audience. The name comes from the part of the body that produces the air, the "uilleann" or "elbow." Resembling a bagpipe, but softer, and with a much greater range, the uilleann pipes were quite popular in Irish music. Stewart Pittman truly displayed its mellow sweetness and virtuosic range.
Often, we attend concerts where the emphasis is historically preserving the musical past through adhering strictly to the rules and regulations set so long ago. While that endeavor is wonderful and valuable for study, what I liked so much about Poisoned Dwarf is their ingenious blend of the old and new. They mixed modern flutes and wooden flutes; guitars, banjos, and mandolins; uilleann pipes and accordion; a djembe from Africa and a bodhran from Ireland. By including so many instruments in one concert, this listener could easily trace the history of this music and could also hear it's evolution. I could hear the traditional roots of Irish and Scottish music in the wooden flute, bodhran, voice, and the uilleann pipes, but I also heard the beginnings of bluegrass and modern country through the banjo, guitar, and mandolin. Poisoned Dwarf has two cd's available and is working on a third. For more information on their recordings visit their website.