at Lancaster Mennonite High School,
Lancaster, PA
(21 October 2002)

(Marquis, 2001)

Is it a fiddle or a violin?

Popular wisdom suggests that the instrument can be defined largely by the style of music played upon it. You typically have classical violinists and folk fiddlers, with jazz falling somewhere in the middle. (There are, of course, exceptions to the rule.)

Bowfire is a variety show that explores the diversity of the instrument, drawing on the talents of several excellent violinists and fiddlers who show just what they can do with a few pounds of wood, wire, rosin and hair.

Featured performers in the show boast an impressive list of credentials. They are Stephane Allard, Shane Cook, Peter De Sotto, Daniel Lapp, Ray Legere, Jon Piltzke, Lara St. John, Lenny Solomon and Kelli Trottier, plus erhu player George Gao.

The backing band features Bill Bridges (guitar), Mark Kelso (percussion), Marc Rogers (bass), Bernie Senensky (piano) and Wendy Solomon (cello).

The show Oct. 21 at the performing arts center at Lancaster Mennonite High School opened to a dramatic pattern of red and black, not only in the settings but the outfits as well, from St. John's elegant black evening gown and De Sotto's stylish vest to Solomon's glistening silk and Lapp's bright red disco shirt and black leather pants.

The music began with "Fiddler in the 'Hood," an ensemble piece of driven funk that breaks into extremely brief spotlight solos of folk, jazz and classical stylings. The program evolved from there, blurring the lines between styles as often as possible.

St. John began the Senensky composition "Father Fugue" as a purely baroque piece. The others joined in, maintaining the theme, until Allard redirected the piece into jazzier lines.

Cook took things along a folkier route, jamming through a series of French-Canadian, Scottish and American tunes. Legere provided expert accompaniment on mandolin (which is basically, after all, a sideways double-stringed fiddle), while Kelso swapped his drum kit for an Irish bodhran.

The ensemble gave a classical mien to "Mystic Moon," until Solomon stepped forward to turn his composition into a voiceless song, its classical foreground meshing with the symphonic accompaniment of the other violinists and the rock-hued backdrop from the rest of the band. Bridges shared the spotlight with an excellent classical guitar solo.

St. John provided a fiery reinterpretation of eastern European dance music in "Charred Ash" (a.k.a. "Czardas Caprice"), making the music a living thing full of fire and frolic. Allard countered with a more ambling piece, "Daphne," which conjured images of a romantic country drive in the days when people still thought an open-topped car sweeping through a rural scene was the epitome of romance.

"Lazy Ray," also by Bridges, was a musical flirtation, with bassist Rogers making the first overtures. Once cellist Wendy Solomon got into the groove, she turned it into an exquisite, rhapsodic dance -- not with Rogers, but with Gao and his erhu. (I felt sorry for Rogers, who got the ball rolling, but Solomon and Gao certainly made beautiful music together.) But Solomon proved more fickle still; her attention on Gao lasted only as long as his solo, after which she turned her affections to a trio of musical suitors -- husband Lenny Solomon, Allard and Lapp -- who competed for her eye in an upbeat, jazzy style. In the end, the cellist was stringing them all along, falling in with Senensky and Kelso by the end.

"The Reel," by Bridges, was an ensemble piece featuring some recognizable snatches of popular folk reels. "The Aire," again by Bridges, was another ensemble flirtation, this time of the sweet, moon-eyed kind, again with the cello at the center of the action.

The first half ended with a medley of primarily Scottish tunes. Lapp got the set rolling, then participated in several duets and trios as the music expanded. Pilatzke and Trottier segued into stepdancing in the midst of the climactic display.

The second half began with Gao and his erhu at the center of the stage, the other musicians ranged in a circle around him as he played the evocative, exotic "Suns and Moons." Beginning with a trance-like air, the melody built in intensity as the Solomon composition took the audience to a chaotic Eastern land.

Gao returned to center stage for the wickedly fast "Galloping Horses" by C. Yao Xin, his erhu sometimes sounding -- and I mean this in a good way -- like a fiddle reaping a whirlwind on slightly warped vinyl.

The show took a different turn on "Mattinata," when De Sotto voiced his Italian tenor and Lapp added a riff, not on violin, but trumpet. Then De Sotto and St. John shared a stirring duet, "Hungaria," which began slow and romantic, then morphed into a passionate and varied folk dance. By the end, I feared the two might have to get married. Then, to keep the audience guessing, Trottier sang "Mist Covered Mountains," a heartfelt song of Irish homecoming lacking only a bit of Gaelic for complete authenticity.

Duke Ellington's "Caravan" proved that, on top of everything else, these cats can swing -- and Lapp kicked some brass with another trumpet solo. Then Legere, with a lawn chair, cooler and a can of something cold, evoked a lazy summer afternoon with his violin solo on "Estrellita." There was nothing at all lazy about Legere's second solo, "Orange Blossom Special," which takes a racing train on a ridiculously fast ride.

With the show winding down, Pilatzke went gonzo on a rocked-up Celtic set, a decidely nontraditional demonstration complete with a staggering, wide-legged shuffle and occasional shrieks to the rafters, and broken bow hairs streaming around his head.

Bowfire ended as it began, with a reprise of "Fiddler in the 'Hood," and the appreciative crowd responded with a lengthy standing ovation.

The audience at Lancaster Mennonite High School was, on average, elderly, so I was both surprised and pleased to see how receptive the crowd was to a show far afield from the typical violin recital. The Bowfire cast has energy and talent to spare, and Solomon's presentation is a daring snapshot of the chaotic extremes to which a single instrument can reach.

The CD prepared by the Bowfire troupe is remarkably similar to the show I saw in Lancaster, although with slight changes in personnel: violinists not mentioned above who are featured on the CD are Moshe Hammer, Scott St. John and Richard Wood. There are also several changes in the backing band.

A recording of this nature certainly lacks something -- the show, after all, was highly visual and kinetic. But as memorabilia goes, Bowfire serves as an excellent musical postcard, keeping memories of the performance fresh.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 16 November 2002

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