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Music Nairn's new season opens with Eastern European music Klezmer

By Margaret Chrystall

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Alba Challah is a relatively young group in every sense, formed just over a year ago and comprising recently graduated students from the Royal Scottish Conservatoire.

Alba Challah.
Alba Challah.

Their slogan ‘so much more than a Klezmer band’ is a useful guide to their chosen repertoire: a basic stock of Eastern European music flavoured with an eclectic variety of other musical traditions. Equally eclectic is the group’s make-up: a clarinettist (doubling recorders), a viola player, a percussionist, a bass guitarist, an accordionist and a cellist.

Klezmer, the distinctive music of the Jews of Eastern Europe, proved the strongest thread through this concert – Alba Challah may aspire to be more than this, but they are incidentally a fine Klezmer band, relying on impressive classical training on their respective instruments. Ruraidh Bakke, the group’s excellent clarinettist and front man, is clearly also the chief driving force behind the ensemble, providing many of the arrangements. These days, I don’t often encounter an entire genre of music with which I am entirely unfamiliar, but I am grateful to Alba Challa for acquainting me with the extraordinary and beautiful instrumental music played in Spanish Holy Week processions. Bakke takes part in these religious marches regularly and drew together a very effective set for the group.

Notwithstanding the excellent musicianship and youthful energy of the players, I found the arrangements of classics such as the Bachanale from Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah, which opened the concert, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no 6 and Rimsky Korsakov’s Sheherazade less satisfactory – chamber versions of epic orchestral music can often be problematic. My other main reservation regards the rather random juxtaposition of some of the musical traditions – the band would argue (and most of the audience would agree with them) that variety is the spice of life. By contrast, I wanted these juxtapositions to have something more to say about the relationship between genres rather than just randomly ‘mashing’ them together – a Russian lovesong and a French waltz, though both lovely, just seemed rather uncomfortable bedfellows.

The imminent departure of the group’s viola player Thaddeus Chung gives them perhaps a window to slightly streamline their repertoire and improve the focus. They will miss Chung’s instrumental and compositional skills – the concert ended with a set of his tunes – but the way the cellist Joanna Stark effortlessly stepped in to replace Josiah Dulstine suggests that this is a group which is bigger than its constituent parts, and which has a promising future ahead of it. It was a bold decision by Music Nairn to open their new season with something quite so different from their normal fare, and the audience was enhanced by the enlivening presence of a proportion of younger people, vital to the future of all arts organisations.

D James Ross

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