The City of London Sinfonia and Friends Dance with the Devil for Burns Night

United KingdomUnited Kingdom CLoSer – The Devil’s Violin & Burns Night Ceilidh: City of London Sinfonia / Alexandra Wood (violin/director), Henry Webster (folk fiddler), Dan Walsh (banjo), Licence to Ceilidh, Wilton’s Music Hall, London, 25.1.2017. (CS)

Vivaldi – La Folia
Piazzolla (arr. Farrington) Suite del diablo
Locatelli – Devil’s Trill: Il laberinto armónico
From the Appalachians) – ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’, ‘McLeod’s Reel’, ‘Gilderoy’
Traditional (arr. Farrington) – ‘The Devil’s Dream’
Copland – ‘Hoe-Down’ from Rodeo
Burns Night Ceilidh

Wilton’s Music Hall opened on 28th March 1859. It evolved from a public house, The Prince of Denmark, which was the haunt of sailors, prostitutes and thieves. John Wilton, who bought the business in 1850, furnished the Hall with chandeliers, installed the finest heating and lighting systems of the day, and put madrigals and operas on the entertainment bill. But, if Wilton hoped that his furbishing would bring some class and order to the heart of the East End, the presence of a brothel just two doors away probably ensured that the audience was never wholly respectable. No doubt, devilry after dark was not uncommon.

So, Wilton’s was the perfect venue to dance with the Devil and celebrate Burns Night with the City of London Sinfonia. The evening began with a sequence, The Devil’s Violin, which brought together the flamboyance of the Baroque, the suavity of the tango, the vibrant toe-tapping of the Scottish reel, and the rustic freedom of the square dances of the American South.

Robert Burns flirted with ‘Auld Hornie’ in many of his works. Inspired by Milton, in his ‘Address to the Devil’ of 1785, he presented the Satanic disposition as a rebellious, iconoclastic stand against autocracy, and in Burns’ poem, ‘Tam O’ Shanter’, the Devil’s musical power goes beyond fabulous fiddling:

Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillon, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.

With some of the audience lounging on cushions at the foot of the stage, dram in hand, the CLS took to the stage, fittingly attired in black and scarlet, and got ready to make Wilton’s ‘dirl’ and dance.

They began with one of the oldest remembered musical patterns, La Folia, which over the course of three centuries has been used by more than 150 composers from Corelli to Liszt, Beethoven to Rachmaninov. The word folia is Portuguese in origin and literally means madness or folly; up until the late 17th-century it indicated a fast and noisy dance in which the participants seemed to be ‘out of their minds’. Vivaldi’s 1705 La Folia – a single-movement Trio Sonata which emulates Corelli’s masterful variations – is more restrained if no less pulsating. In the hands of the CLS it made for a rousing opener, the virtuosic figurations and imitative interplay whipping up a whirl. The flamboyant hyperbole of the crescendos, accelerating bow sweeps and emphatic second-beat surges might well have raised a few eye-brows among ‘authentic performance’ purists – though aficionados of ensembles such as Europa Galante and Red Priest would surely have approved – but the flashy theatricality never overstepped the parameters of style and taste. Alexandra Wood led with relaxed persuasiveness and her interplay with Jane Cawardine was animated and colourful, the melodic lines tingling with energy. The quieter variants allowed us to enjoy the intricate lattice-work of Paula Chateauneuf’s baroque guitar which during the more vivacious episodes provided snappy percussive accompaniment.

Another dance with a characteristic tempo and pattern followed, though in the hands of Ástor Piazzolla the tango was liberated from predictability. As we heard in a vivacious Tango del Diablo, Piazzolla injected the dance with a new verve, rich tonal harmonies, rhythmic variety, bright sound-colours and forceful attack. The touching simplicity of the Romance del Diablo sang sweetly, though greater rhythmic undulation would have created a stronger sense of sensuous freedom.

Pietro Antonio Locatelli’s Laberinto armónico (from L’arte del violino, Op.3 No.12, (1733)) offered an opportunity for Wood to display her astonishingly relaxed virtuosity, and she whizzed through the technical tests – double-stopping, polyphonic playing, fiendish finger-work and spirited string-crossings – with ease and aplomb, supported by the powerful punch of the CLS.

The orchestra stepped aside, perching on the stage platform or joining the audience in restful comfort on the floor-cushions, for fiddler Henry Webster and Dan Walsh on banjo to take centre-stage. Feet were twitching – theirs and ours – almost before a note was played. Once the reels and hoedowns were underway – Walsh’s pick and slap style complemented by Webster’s quieter fluidity – the spirit of liberty and revolt was infectious: so much so that after a toe-tapping rendition of ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’, which depicts Napoleon’s defeat and exile, the CLS players joined the dynamic duo for Copland’s treatment of the same theme in Rodeo.

After the interval, with the Hall floor cleared of chairs and patrons vivified by interval-victuals, devilry gave way to dancing and drams, as Licence to Ceilidh put the dancers through their paces. This was an evening when the devil was in the detail. The CLS and Licence to Ceilidh conjured a spirit of warm intoxication to match the finest single malt.

Claire Seymour

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