Nevada County’s favorite string duo return to the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley for a special evening of musical fire and grace presented by Strings Concerts Thursday.
Recently, Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser and his former student, cellist Natalie Haas spent a week at the local Flying Whale studio, one of Fraser’s favorite places to record, working on another album of original material and some old favorites. This is the duo’s fourth album together.
“We’re excited to be adventuring forward musically. We’ve now been touring pretty much exclusively for over 12 years. Who would’ve thought!,” Fraser said.
The musical partnership between Fraser, long regarded as Scotland’s premier fiddle ambassador, and the talented young California cellist Haas may not seem an obvious one.
Fraser, acclaimed by the San Francisco Examiner as “the Michael Jordan of Scottish fiddling,” has a concert and recording career spanning 30 years, with a long list of awards, accolades, television credits, and feature performances on top movie soundtracks such as “Last of the Mohicans” and “Titanic.” Fraser has been sponsored by the British Council to represent Scotland’s music internationally, and received the Scottish Heritage Center Service Award for outstanding contributions to Scottish culture and traditions.
Haas, a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music, wasn’t even born when Fraser was winning national fiddle competitions on the other side of the Atlantic. But this seemingly unlikely pairing is the fulfillment of a long-standing musical dream for Fraser who sought to bring back the cello to its historical role at the rhythmic heart of Scottish dance music.
“Going back to the 1700s, and as late as the early 20th century, fiddle and cello made up the dance band of choice in Scotland, with the cellist bowing bass lines and driving the rhythm. Pianos and accordions elbowed out the cello, relegating it to an orchestral setting. I’ve been pushing to get the cello back into the traditional music scene for years, always on the lookout for a cellist with whom I could have a strong musical conversation, one that incorporated not just the cello’s gorgeous melodic tones, but also the gristly bits—the rhythmic, percussive energy that makes the wee hairs on the back of the neck stand up,” Fraser said.
Natalie Haas was just 11 when she first attended Fraser’s “Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School” in California. She responded to Fraser’s challenge to find and release the cello’s rhythmic soul, and four years later, when Natalie was 16, Fraser and Haas played their first concerts together.
Now regularly touring with Fraser and creating a buzz at festivals and in concert halls throughout Europe and North America, Haas is in the vanguard of young cellists who are redefining the role of the cello in traditional music.
“We can delve into centuries of music with this combination and also explore many different energy levels from the “rockin’ out” to the very intimate,” Fraser said.
The two represented Scotland at the Smithsonian Museum’s Folklife Festival, have been featured on nationally broadcast Performance Today, the Thistle and Shamrock, and Mountain Stage. They both teach at Fraser’s popular annual summer fiddle courses, “Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School” and “Sierra Fiddle Camp” both in California, and at “Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic College” in Scotland.
In June, the musical partners played at the Sierra Fiddle Camp concert in Pioneer Park along with more than a hundred other musicians. The four fiddle camps Fraser runs – two in California, one in Scotland and one in Spain – remain a big part of the duo’s musical life and inspiration, said Fraser.
Haas is on the faculty of Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“Cellists are coming out of the woodwork to study with Natalie, to learn how she creates a groove and a whole chunky rhythm section,” said Fraser. “It’s inspiring to hear the cello unleashed from its orchestral shackles!”
The duo released their debut album, Fire and Grace in 2004, displaying dazzling teamwork, driving, dancing rhythms, and a shared passion for improvising on the melody and groove of Scottish tunes. The recording won critical acclaim and the coveted Scottish Traditional Music “Album of the Year” award, the Scottish equivalent of a Grammy.
Other recordings include: “In the Moment” and “Highlander’s Farewell,” available from Culbernie Records.
Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door and available at The Center Box Office, (530) 274-8384 ext 14, BriarPatch Co-op or online at www.thecenterforthearts.org. For more information, go to www.stringsconcerts.com. The Center is located at 314 W. Main St. in Grass Valley.