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Barrage violinists sing, dance and shine

I'm still all jittery, an hour after hearing the final notes of Barrage's "Vagabond Tales," an often manic, mostly astonishing one-night show at Shea's.

With this performance, Barrage, a group of 11 young musicians, could do for violin-playing what "Riverdance" did for Irish dancing.

There were no slackers in the ensemble and few slow moments in the presentation, but remember this name: Seonaid (pronounced Shona) Aitken, a competent singer and sizzling violinist from Scotland.

Without a program, most of the enthusiastic audience of over 800 will recall her as the blond who broke several bowstrings and, in the flimsy and completely extraneous "plot," won the golden sash.

Aitken capably let the group of seven violinists, who were backed by a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist and a goofball percussionist, then brought the house down with an intricate violin solo toward the end of the show.

The pure musicianship of the well-scrubbed players, who are 21 to 27 and, besides Scotland, hail from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and England, was impressive by itself. But that wasn't all they did -- they sang, they danced (everything from a Russian dance to a jitterbug), they juggled, tumbled, spun and jumped and never missed a beat.
But when they weren't using their violins in cheerfully odd ways, the players evoked incredibly varied nuances of mood. They played notes ranging from sweet melancholy cries to strident calls, from cheerful happy notes to a hilarious sequence of waking-up sounds, including a yawn, squeaking shoes and a rude noise.

With all this brilliance, the plot was hazy and a bit distracting. A mysteriously accented voice booms out to explain that people have split into two tribes, one playing under the sun, the other under the moon. Halfway through, a golden sash appears as a prize for some competition. At the end, everybody misses their friends and the group unites again. My advice: Ditch it. The pieces stand well enough alone, without this flimsy web of drama.

Small parts of the show fell flat. A wholly unnecessary pantomime of cheering up a sad guy (whose girlfriend then flounces off with him in a jealous huff) descended close to mawkishness during the otherwise sweetly sung "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Luckily, when they did "Eleanor Rigby" later, they didn't act out Father MacKenzie darning his socks.

Percussionist Bob Fenske, from Alberta, deserves special mention. He stood out at first for his curly mop and orange pants accented by white shoes and belt. I wanted to yell, "Hey, Buddy! 'Godspell' is that way!" But he also showed some uncanny talent when two of the other players had him play a tune on a xylophone with first two, then four, then eight mallets between his fingers. Then, when he was looking a bit like Edward Scissorhands, they lifted the xylophone and had him play it that way, then pulled it from one end of the stage to the other with ropes. Throughout, he never missed a note.

Near the end, the players produce seven large exercise balls and proceeded to bounce on them like puppies -- but agile and well-choreographed ones. After bouncing the balls back and forth to each other, they sat on them and bounced across the stage, then each player stood, put a foot on the ball and kept time by bouncing the foot. They looked like the Harlem Globetrotters, except did I mention that they were also all playing violins the whole time? It was awesome.

Halfway through intermission, a young teenage girl in front of me borrowed her mom's cell phone to tell someone, "You are so missing something good!"

Unfortunately, if you missed last night's performance, so did you. "Barrage" last hit Buffalo in 2002. If we're lucky, it might be back sooner next time.


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