Flutist, BSO perform classical, folk fusion

Music: Chris Norman says composers have based works on folk music for more than 300 years.

April 04, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If you wanted to pigeonhole flutist Chris Norman, it would be tempting to describe him as a "classical crossover" musician.

On the one hand, he's extremely capable on both the modern flute and the older wooden flute and has performed everything from early music to the work of contemporary composers. On the other, he's also a celebrated folk musician who has demonstrated his command of the Celtic idiom for decades in concert halls and ceilis. And when he plays a piece such as Brian Christopher Packham's "Cape Breton Concerto" -- which he performs this evening with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- he draws on the best of both worlds.

Trouble is, Norman doesn't especially like labels, and "classical crossover" is one that particularly rankles. As far as he's concerned, there's nothing new about blending folk melodies with classical structures.

"Nowadays, we have the idea that this [fusion] is something new," he says. "In fact, it's completely natural and has been going on for 300 years."

Beethoven, Bach and Brahms drew from folk music, and many other classical works -- from Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody" to Vaughan Williams' "English Folk Song Suite" -- mix the two.

Norman is especially fond of music Bartok wrote using folk themes the composer collected in the Hungarian countryside. "His whole approach to that fusion is very inspirational," he says.

Packham's "Cape Breton Concerto" takes a similar approach to traditional source material. "That piece uses traditional thematic material from Cape Breton but weaves it into a real classical concerto structure with a statement, a development, and a sub-theme," he says. "So it's an original work of music."

The flutist will also perform Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 1 and a piece called "Three French Canadian Reels from the Repertoire of Alfred Montmarquette," which he himself arranged. (The BSO, with conductor Daniel Hege, will also perform Mozart's "Overture to `The Magic Flute'" and Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet").

Norman comes to this merger of classical and traditional musics honestly. As a child in Nova Scotia, he was surrounded by traditional Celtic music.

"My parents are both from the Maritime Provinces," he says, referring to the Atlantic Coast provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. "They were both big lovers of traditional music and what you'd call Canadian country music, which is basically a lot of Celtic music and songs and ballads."

But even though his home life was focused on traditional music, his early musical training was strictly classical.

"The moment I heard the sound of the flute, I knew that I wanted to be a flute player," he says. "I was immediately funneled toward classical playing, because there was no one playing traditional music on the flute [in Nova Scotia]. Occasionally, you'd hear a penny whistle. But it was mostly fiddle and bagpipes, and maybe a few accordions."

Eventually, of course, Norman became aware of the Celtic flute repertoire and pursued it so whole-heartedly that he briefly abandoned classical music. Now, however, he sees the importance of both disciplines.

"Music, like so many other art forms, really is a language, and the more vocabulary you have, the more effectively you can communicate," he says. "I think it's worthwhile to tear down some barriers, because there just are too many divisions that pull us apart."

He says traditional music has a great deal to offer.

"The rich well of melody that composers use as inspiration is great, as is the rhythmic impetus that gives you the dance," he said. "By the same token, Western classical music also has a lot to offer: a tremendous harmonic vocabulary, a sensitivity and ideas about how to sing."

The challenge for artists is to have both. "That's what people really respond to," he says. "If you can present them with both, they're just going to go nuts, because you've got it all."

BSO's All- Baltimore Concert

When: 7: 30 tonight

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $15, box seats $25 (proceeds go to 12 local non-profit organizations)

Call 410-783-8000

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