In Conversation With . . . Ensemble Polaris Part II

Ensemble Polaris is a group of musical masters who have banded together to perform and record music from the northern latitudes. According to their website, some of the musical traditions they embrace include ?early, folk, Klezmer, Hot Club of Paris, middle Eastern and southeast Asian, traditional Scandinavian, Celtic, Cape Breton, eastern European, classical, improvisatory, and avant-garde.? They’ve just released their fourth album (see the recent Voice review of Uncharted Waters).

Recently flautist Alison Melville and clarinetist Colin Savage took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about their musical roots and branches. Read Part I of the interview here.

Early Music

Alison’s early musical influences were rich in quality and manifold of genre. Some of her earliest musical memories include hearing tunes from musicals and oratorios in family singalongs around her aunt’s piano. ?As an older kid and teenager I listened to a lot of rock ?n? roll on the radio; but I also played Renaissance consort music from the age of 11, woodwind and baroque chamber music throughout my teens, and everything from Bach and Strauss to Sondheim and Gilbert and Sullivan in community orchestras, bands, and musicals. I feel lucky to have had such a smorgasbord of a musical diet!?


The baroque orchestra Tafelmusik, where several of the members of Ensemble Polaris work as freelance musicians, is one common ground for many of them. ?We had previously met one another doing other projects, ?some of them in the early music scene,? Colin says. The willingness to be flexible in playing style and to explore different instrumental sound qualities, common in both the historical performance world and the ?New Music? world, has been a very useful attribute in Ensemble Polaris.

Fun with Music

you’d think it would be hard to please musicians with such stimulating backgrounds, but performing with Ensemble Polaris is no snooze. ?Speaking for myself,? says Colin, ?playing with Ensemble Polaris (along with performing Mozart operas on period instruments) is the most fun I have playing music. The realities of making a living as a musician require that we all do a lot of projects outside the group, but we do set aside several time slots every season for developing new repertoire, concerts, recording, and touring.?

One of the most delightful characteristics of Ensemble Polaris is the group’s serious but playful approach to repertoire. Colin divulges one idea: ?a concert of music related to games, including our version of the Hockey Night in Canada theme (an iconic Canadian TV theme) and a potential Christmas CD, following the success of our ?Not the Nutcracker? program last December, which included Russian folk tunes and our rearrangements of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music.

?He would have used accordion and hurdy gurdy if he’d thought of it. Who needs a celeste when you’ve got two mandolins, bass clarinet, and triangle??

Recalling an Auditory Zenith

When asked about her most moving musical experiences, Alison recalls a concert of South Indian classical music she heard in her teens: ?I remember being completely entranced by this music and also by a concert of my teacher years later in Basel, Switzerland. It was the grace and simplicity of both of these that impressed me; there was virtuosity when called for, too, but the focused presence of the more reflective moments was magical. I often think the world could use more of that these days.?

On the Horizon

Ensemble Polaris is currently planning a tour of a cluster of northern states in 2013-14, and for next season they hope to collaborate with some Scandinavian-Canadian folk dancers. they’re also planning a performance of a new piece written for just for them by Canadian composer Andrew Downing.