Partnering with an orchestra seems to be the thing to do these days. Bela Fleck did it last year with his concerto, as did the Kruger Brothers, as did Ricky Skaggs with the Boston Pops a few years ago, as did Cherryholmes before they disbanded. It’s easy to wonder what the impulse is. The pessimist might say that it’s a desire for respectability or, in the case of the Jay Unger and Molly Mason Family Band, a desire to take their music into bigger markets.
The live event that is captured on this release, “A Fiddler’s Holiday,” is one that was conceived of first as a PBS special, and one that will air on PBS this holiday season. The Jay Unger and Molly Mason Family Band, with Ruthie Ungar and her husband Mike Merenda, pair with the University of Mary Washington Philharmonic orchestra for a presentation of holiday tunes.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to reach a broader audience. But as a CD, this album feels like an ancillary to the PBS special, which inevitably it will be; I can already see it being waved around as an incentive during the holiday pledge drive. Certainly, on that level it will transmit in the same way that the Three Tenors do, or the Celtic Woman specials do, or any of the other musical events that carry so well on public television. They work well with audiences that aren’t part of the greater Celtic or classical audiences.
The result can feel antiseptic which, independent of PBS, can be the case with pairing roots or bluegrass musicians with orchestras. Celtic music, bluegrass, old time, even classical for that matter in their purest forms are messy musics, with rough edges and bristles and unrestrained energy. Left to their own terms is, arguably, how they work best.
As a result, purists are skeptical of bands trying to be something they aren’t, and they cringe at some of the twee touches that orchestras tend to add–touches that they perceive as an effort to make the music more palatable to a less informed audience. The first track on “Fiddler’s Holiday,” “The Solstice Set” begins with a gorgeous piece of fiddling, though is interrupted by a harp and a rising chorus of strings. The accompaniment tells us what to feel, though it would be nicer if that aspect of the music was left to us. After all, Jay Ungar is a very skilled and moving fiddler, which is one of the reasons that Ken Burns chose his music as a soundtrack to his documentary The Civil War. He doesn’t really need the kind of support the orchestra gives here, which smoothes the material rather than adding dimension to it.
The are indeed some very nice moments here, and from such a seasoned and skilled set of musicians, that much is inevitable. Given that it’s a holiday CD, it’s also nice that they tend to steer clear of the songs we hear so much of this season and choose instead to bring forward some pieces that we tend to hear less of, if at all. “While Roving on a Winter’s Night,” is a beautiful moment, in part because it is so associated with Doc Watson and therefore it becomes a tribute to him. There’s a nice version of “Ashokan Farewell” in part because it stays so close to the sparse, mournful arrangement that it had when originally released in 1982. In both of those instances they let the pieces simply speak for themselves, which is something they might have considered more in this set of music.
Some of the fuller arrangements work fine enough, such as that for “Themes from Harvest Home Suite,” though other pieces are less successful, and perhaps “The Snowstorm” is a standout in that category. There the instrumentation rankles—if you go to all the trouble of setting a stage with a full orchestra, why on earth would you use an electronic piano instead of an acoustic piano? It’s an unfortunate choice, as is the brass on “Lights of Chanukah” and “Silent Night Two Step.” Elsewhere, the orchestral arrangements are overly consonant, without the kind of depth that would be nice to see here. At times the lush arrangements simply get in the way. They turn Silent Night into a marching band/parade number, and it doesn’t work.
In the video promotion for this album, Merenda says that the band plays a “grab bag of American Music.” In a smaller venue, with a smaller group of musicians, that approach works exceptionally well. And, indeed, I’ve seen Ungar and Mason in a small venue, and it was magical. Here, though, they take a shot at a larger project which, unfortunately, feels a bit hastily put together, despite perhaps the time that it actually required to mount. It’s also got all the hallmarks of a PBS special, and if you can endure the pledge breaks, your best bet is just to watch it on TV.