The Sutton Fiddle Festival: a recap by Elizabeth Szekeres
The fifth annual Sutton Fiddle Festival took place once more, Aug. 16-19, 2018, in the charming bilingual village of Sutton in the southern mountains of Québec, not far from the Vermont border. This small festival just keeps on getting better and better thanks to the hard work of principal organizer and artistic director Jean DeGrosbois and his team of wonderful bénévoles, the volunteers who make it all happen.
For two days prior to the festival weekend, fiddle players gathered for classes with two amazing fiddlers – Alexis Chartrand from Québec, and Kevin Burke who now lives in Oregon, together with guitarist Peter Senn from Montréal.
Alexis Chartrand, at 23 years old, is already an amazing player, being compared with the likes of the legendary Jean Carignan. But not only is Alexis an astounding fiddler, but he is a wonderful teacher as well, being able to articulate what a fiddler needs to do to make a tune come alive and engage dancers and listeners, beyond just mastering the basic notes.
Legendary Irish fiddler Kevin Burke led classes in which he explained and demonstrated the finer points of Irish fiddling. It’s all about the rhythms and precise ornamentation. DADGAD guitar specialist Peter Senn held classes for those with fretted instruments, showing musical strategies for accompaniment.
And then the festival began, with main stage performances under the Grand Chapiteau; Québecois square dances in the adjacent town hall; fiddle sessions for all under the trees in the park and in the adjacent Salle Pelletier; a wandering band that delighted people all over the town; and a kids’ festival, which included storytellers, fiddles and a teacher.
Friday night’s main stage performances began with Anit Ghosh from Montreal, who took us on a world music journey with his two violins, plus a ravanahatha from India, and an accompanist on Oud. Anit, who also plays with the Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra, gave us music from Turkey, India, the Balkan mountains of Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire and Macedonia. The music was other-worldly, making us imagine travels over the Silk Road. On his ravanahatha, which is akin to the Chinese lute the erhu, there are seventeen sympathetic strings and one string that is bowed and fingered to produce the melody. Anit played a very entertaining version of La Marche de Mont St. Louis on the instrument. He also played an electronic tabla (an Indian drum) and a violin tuned ‘en vielle’ to make it ring while he was playing an Indian Raga with many ‘bent notes.’ It was a simply beautiful performance.
Next up, Véronique Plasse from the Lanaudière region northeast of Montreal and Andrea Beaton, originally from Cape Breton but now living near Montreal, showed off their amazing fiddling chops together. They are superbly well-matched in their playing skills and their approach to music and performance. Twin fiddles and harmonies ensued throughout their set, which was a stunning collection of tunes from both the Québecois and Cape Breton repertoires arranged together. These two ladies are hugely creative with their original compositions and their arrangements, bringing music from the regions of Canada where they each grew up. The audience loved every minute as Véronique and Andrea animatedly shared the stage with full eye contact and bodies in constant motion, just having a whale of a time up there. They’ll be launching a new album in late October, so they would love for everyone to check out www.beaton-plasse.com for the updates and pre-sale of their album.
Pete’s Posse, from Burlington, Vermont, came onstage and gave us a wonderful blast of tunes to finish Friday night. The legendary Pete Sutherland (fiddle, piano, everything,) with his much younger band mates, Oliver Scanlon (fiddle/mandolin) and Tristan Sutherland (guitars/guimbardes) took us on a journey through a whole range of musical styles. There were Québecois melodies, Old Time Appalachian numbers, a cappella songs from the southern USA, French turluttes (mouth music), and even their original compositions. Their North Link set was inspired by a ferry ride from the north of Scotland to the Orkney Islands. Regulars on the New England contra dance circuit, these three musicians evidently have great respect for each other’s musicianship, and their live concert really shows just how much fun they have making music together. We were really struck by a line from one of their songs: “Life and Death are two trains on a line; Catch one, you catch the other, just a matter of time.”
Saturday performances began with Rhizome, from Montreal. This trio focuses on their original compositions for fiddle and accordion with bouzouki accompaniment. As they spread their roots underground, there is an organic absorption of influences from Breton music and other older European styles of music. This is music that is simply lovely to listen to, and it was also really well appreciated by the Friday night diners at the Sutton Brouërie.
Next up was a performance of seven guitar players sharing the stage. Willy Lemaistre (Soulwood) showed off his DADGAD fingerstyle skills on his father’s lovely 1960 Martin guitar. Nicolas Babineau (Chartrand/Babineau) played a lovely Paul Marchand piece: “Ballad Bretonne.” Thierry Clouette (Rhizome, ETE), played a waltz-like mazurka on his bouzouki with DADA tuning, just like it was a very long necked mandolin. Tristan Henderson played a gorgeous fingerstyle piece by Jean-Paul Loyer, accompanied by Pete Sutherland backing him on a very subtly played banjo.
Pete Sutherland, for his own showcase, played his five-string banjo in clawhammer style – a very fun piece with lots of groove. Workshop host Tomas DeGrosbois played three rhythmic old English tunes from the 16th century on his four string banjo. And finally, Peter Senn, the legendary guitar accompanist from Montreal, played a series of energetic Irish tunes in DADGAD tuning. After a second go-round on the very crowded stage, it was time for the lunch break.
Véronique Plasse, a hugely accomplished fiddler from the Lanaudière region, conducted a master class on the back lawn of a nearby home owned by one of the festival volunteers. Surrounded by gorgeous gardens, Véronique taught us how to get the whole body involved while you’re playing the fiddle – because Québecois music is so totally grounded in the earth.
While Véronique’s class proceeded in the garden, back at the festival site, the duo Zigue took the stage. Venerated Québec fiddler and composer Claude Méthé showed off some of his wonderful tunes accompanied by his wife, Dana Whittle. Claude is a mentor to many young fiddlers and we were really pleased when both Claude and Dana lead many of the rip-roaring fiddle sessions that took place after hours during the festival weekend.
Andrea Beaton, accompanied by Peter Senn, took the Saturday afternoon stage next. Andrea was born into a huge extended family of musicians in Cape Breton, so you can say with all honesty that this music is in her genes. Cape Breton reels, jigs and even a lovely waltz were played with precision, love and heart. We were delighted to hear a really spirited version of “Jean’s Reel” standing out among others in a blast of tunes. Andrea has a great stage presence and often introduces her sets by saying, “We’ll see what happens!” Her performance is intuitive, the set list is vaguely in her head, and she often seems to make it up as she goes along. Such is the creativity and capability of someone who has the music in her bones as well as the immense experience of a virtuoso player.
As we exited the main stage Chapiteau for a break, the crowd was delighted to find one of Québec’s most accomplished fiddlers, Pascal Gemme (Genticorum), leading a jam for the fiddling children. The kids ranged in age from about five to 10 and were delightfully playing “La Maison de Glace” (composed by Rejean Brunet of Le Vent du Nord). We heard nary a wrong note happening in the group. It was delightful to see Pascal encouraging these little ones, who will step into his shoes as the next generation of trad musicians in Québec.
Next up, we had a stage full of fiddlers who stepped up to fill the slot in the program that was left when Fru Skagerrak from Scandinavia was unfortunately unable to attend. Pascal Gemme (Genticorum), Andrea Beaton, Nicolas Babineau, and Alexis Chartrand (Chartrand/Babineau), each brought their fiddling skills to the stage.
Pascal, who was the originator of the idea for the Sutton Festival des Violons five years ago, and who was its founding artistic director, played the lovely “Valse Beçant” by Claude Méthé. Nicolas played a lively tune: “La Reel de Josef Larade” with style and panache. Alexis effortlessly played a blast of Newfoundland tunes by Emile Benoit, and Andrea did a tune her mom loves that was inspired by meeting a baby moose on a road in Maine. For the second go-round, Pascal induced trances in the audience with a ballad by Leo Aucoin. Nicolas and Alexis did a blast of three reels on unison twin fiddles and Andrea played a Cape Breton set that featured tunes composed by some of her family members.
The finale of the fiddlers’ performances was a set of tunes played ensemble – all together. Peter Senn jumped onto the stage to accompany the fiddlers with their set of Québecois tunes that included “La Marche au Camp,” “6/8 André Alain” and “Reel Issoudun,” all wonderful pieces from the common repertoire. The audience loved it.
If the great performances earlier in the festival weren’t enough, on Saturday night, real magic happened.
ÉTÉ took the stage first and wowed the audience with its animated stage performance. Élisabeth Moquin (fiddle, feet, voice, stepdance), Thierry Clouette (bouzouki, voice) and Élisabeth Giroux (Cello, voice) were totally on the money. They represent the next generation of performers who are conjoining the trad and classical worlds, bringing together their original compositions with contemporary arrangements of traditional music, call-and-response singing, and percussive sounds through stepdance and foot percussion. Great communication was evident in the way the band members were non-verbally wired together on stage, and Élisabeth Moquin was a huge crowd-pleaser when she stepdanced her way through “La Petite Moquin,” the dynamite tune written for her by Claude Méthé.
Next up was legendary Irish fiddler Kevin Burke, who played solo, unaccompanied for most of his set. He showed off tunes from County Clare, Sligo and County Galway, among other places, and told some tall tales about Irish musicians he had known while growing up in London. A funny guy, he struggled to talk to the audience in his rudimentary French and then said in English: “Half of what I say doesn’t really work in any language anyway!” The amused crowd understood him regardless, and loved his music, which included tunes from Turloch O’Carolan, the famous blind harpist and composer from 18th century Eire. Kevin has an encyclopedic knowledge of Irish music and, with his perfect rhythm and intonation, he was really well-received. He concluded his performance with a set of polkas accompanied by Peter Senn.
The final performance of Saturday night was nothing short of astounding. Two fiddles, one pair of feet and a guitar, all belonging to Alexis Chartrand and Nicolas Babineau, showed incredible musical sensitivity and virtuosity from these two young players.
Alexis, as I previously mentioned, is 23 years old; Nicolas is 22. They have played together since they were kids and have developed into remarkable players. Both play fiddle, and Nicolas also plays guitar accompaniment. Alexis is also a master of foot percussion while he plays. Their performance is immensely creative, with lovely arrangements of the traditional tunes. “La Grondeuse de Wilfred,” which they obtained from Eric Favreau (Raz-de-Marée) featured simultaneous fiddles playing off each other. “Gigue de Sherbrooke” captured twin fiddle harmonies. Their arrangement of “Marche du Quêteux Pomerleau” had a beautifully slow intro, with harmonies. It was melodic and soulful, building beautifully into the next set of tunes – reels from the Québecois oeuvre, inspired by Irish phrasing and ornamentation.
Said Alexis: “To play trad music is to walk in the steps of legends.”
He has that right.
After concluding the set with a rip-roaring powerhouse finale where his bow was literally flying over the strings, and the audience was on its feet applauding long before the set was over, the emcee for the evening, Gilles Garand, came on stage to declare that the legendary Québecois fiddler Jean Carignan will have to move over and relinquish his title.
Sutton’s Sunday performances were a little more subdued, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Young Tradition Vermont wowed the crowd. This was a large ensemble of students from the YTV program who came to show their stuff, accompanied by their teachers, Pete Sutherland, Andrea Beaton and Oliver Scanlon. These young people were clearly delighted to be perpetuating the rich musical tradition of their elders in Vermont.
Monique Jutras channeled the legendary Québec singer La Bolduc, and was accompanied by fiddler Richard Forest with Tomas DeGrosbois on banjo. Monique sang and showed off her collection of ‘bonhomme gigeur’ dancing dolls all dressed up to dance on paddle boards. Monique was also really funny, trying to teach the audience a completely tongue-twisting turlutte – a very complicated song with no real words. The audience was in stitches.
A second performance of fiddlers from all genres ensued. Oliver Scanlon (Pete’s Posse), Alex Kehler (Soulwood), Élisabeth Giroux (ÉTÉ), Élisabeth Moquin (ÉTÉ), Claude Méthé (Zigue), and Richard Forest showed their stuff. It was “releasing the fiddlers into the wild,” said the emcee.
Élisabeth Giroux played “Hommage à Jimmy Genova” on her cello – it’s an accordion tune that is known for being much harder to play on an instrument in the violin family. Élisabeth Moquin fiddled a jig in 6/8 time with lots of double stops and foot percussion. Pretty cool. Claude Méthé played the first tune he learned as a child. It happened to be quite a complicated crooked tune, but he said that he learned it before he even understood what a crooked tune was.
And then, Richard Forest played two of his own compositions, great reels that have made it into the common session repertoire in Québec. Oliver Scanlon played a great old time Appalachian tune.
“I have finally mastered that tricky bowing,” he declared.
Alex Kehler wowed the audience by playing a Swedish nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle with a ton of sympathetic strings. He composed the tune himself, in the style of a Halling dance where men impress the women by dancing with precision and abandon, kicking high enough to knock a cap off a stick held way up by the woman he is courting.
During the afternoon, the Chaise Musicale event took place in the adjacent Église Baptist. Facilitated by fiddler Catherine Planet, (of YouTube’s Chasse Balcon fame, as well as the band Rose Vagabond), amateur fiddlers attending the festival had the opportunity to strut their stuff. “Open mic without the mic,” they said. All afternoon, we were treated to informal performances that even included a couple of Cajun tunes from Louisiana.
After a break at the Grand Chapiteau, Alex Kehler took the stage again, with a fiddle this time, accompanied by guitarist Willy Lemaistre. (Together, they are part of the ensemble Soulwood.) For this performance, Alex and Willy gave us a touring voyage around the Celtic world, with tunes often taken from the cornemuse/bagpipe traditions of several Celtic nations plus some tunes from Scandinavia.
The festival finished on Sunday afternoon with a huge fiddling finale. All the festival fiddlers were on stage for a big jam of traditional Québecois fiddle tunes and another stepdancing extravaganza by Élisabeth Moquin. They finished by fiddling their way out of the Grand Chapiteau and over to the food area in the park, where more tunes happened, and Élisabeth stepdanced atop a picnic table. The final tune, a reprise of “La Petite Moquin,” knocked everyone’s socks off as Élisabeth gigued her way to exhaustion.
And that was a wrap for Sutton 2018. A few fiddlers hung around playing tunes under the trees as the crew began the tear-down, and then everyone headed for the many great little restaurants on the nearby Rue Principale. Time for a well-earned dinner before heading home.
Correction: A previous version of this story mis-identified the instrument played by Turloch O’Carolan.