Another exciting concert at Bar Marco: Chris Norman and the Chatham Baroque playing a tasty assortment of dynamic music

Just this week, Annie of the Pittsburgh Recorder Society sent out email reminding us of upcoming musical performances of interest, including some by the Chatham Baroque joined by visiting Chris Norman.

Chris Norman

When I heard that Chris Norman was coming, I frantically started rethinking my schedule for the week, because I really wanted to see him playing his wooden flutes. He has been one of my primary musical heroes since I first encountered him at a public music jam session last year sponsored by the Renaissance and Baroque of Pittsburgh. That day was one of the most important days of my life, which I will never forget, because not only did I see and hear a real master, but also was encouraged to participate myself in playing music.

I’ve always also been a big fan of Chatham Baroque, for their lively, alert performances of the standard repertoire as well as new collaborations and projects.

So I managed to attend one of this week’s concerts, and I was not disappointed!

Why I rarely attend concerts

First, a reminder: nowadays, I rarely attend concerts (or even listen to recorded music). I explained why over a year ago: time is limited (on weekdays and particularly on weekends). Furthermore, when I do attend concerts, I am much pickier about what I attend, because when I think about it, in the past I have often been disappointed by concerts.

Bar Marco and nature of music venues

One thing I came to realize is that the standard “classical music” concert is not to my taste. First of all, the programs tend to be very long, such as two hours with an intermission, which, frankly, taxes both my attention span as well as takes up an entire block of time in an evening. Second, and most important actually, is that there is a sense of “distance” and even formality in the standard concert. This is reinforced by certain choices of clothing and demeanor.

Note: I’m speaking as one who did not grow up in “classical music” culture, but only really discovered and fell in love with Western art music upon attending college. So there have always been things about the culture that initially struck me as strange, and are probably at least partially responsible for the relative lack of popularity of the music among younger people (just peek into the average classical music concert hall and you’ll see geezers and middle-aged people).

I rather enjoyed the use of Bar Marco last fall as non-traditional music venue, where I saw AquiTango performing, and sat up close and enjoyed the relative intimacy and informality of the occasion. Not only that, but from a technical, performance point of view (now that I play music myself), it is extremely educational for me to be up front seeing what the musicians do and relating to it and learning from it, whether it’s cues and signals among them or details of physical technique. This is stuff you can’t get sitting far away in a big concert hall, and you certainly can’t get at all from audio recordings or even videos really. You have to be there, anticipating, thinking actively, hearing the breaths, seeing the faces, in real time. Music is not just sound, not just wave forms or digital bits. It’s a live, active creation.

So I jumped at the opportunity to see Chris Norman and Chatham Baroque also at Bar Marco.

This venue has its limitations, of course. Primarily, the bar downstairs is very noisy, and it would be nice if there were a barrier to avoid the noise and music blasting downstairs from so easily being heard upstairs. That said, for the most part I wasn’t too bothered by the noise, because I sat up front very near the musicians, and so when they were playing, I didn’t hear the noise. But in moments of dead silence the distraction was real. I would suggest putting up a temporary barrier at the stairway during performances.

The music

A single hour of musical selections was presented (a good length for me; as I mentioned earlier, two hours is a very long time).

Scottish Baroque: James Osvald

The concert started out with a Scottish Baroque sonata by James Osvald.

I was interested to actually see Scottish Baroque music being performed live because up till now, I had only played it without listening to it, through a “Baroque Around the World” series of books. And I had played it on flute, even though the music was clearly geared toward violin.


Chris played the same keyed wooden classical flute for the most part through the concert, although in the slow movement of just this sonata he switched to a deeper alto flute.

Throughout the concert, Andrew Fouts played Baroque violin, while Patrician Halverson played different sizes of viola da gamba, and Scott Pauley played theorbo as well as a banjo and a Baroque guitar.

No program notes

There were no program notes for this concert, by the way: just how I like it! Instead, Chris introduced each piece before he and Chatham Baroque performed it. I liked how he added colorful and humorous touches to his brief introductions. All concerts should work this way. Long program notes are as pointless, in my opinion, as voluminous printed slides at a lecture: they are only a distraction from the presentation.

American old-time music

Then they switched things up and played some American old-time music, including “Man of Constant Sorrow”. It was interesting hearing Baroque instruments used for this kind of music.

Chris was really in his element playing this folk music. He became very expressive and walked around and stamped his feet. You can’t experience this kind of concentration and passion just sitting at home listening to some CD or music file: you had to be there, up front! This is what I want to live when I attend a concert.

Back to Scottish Baroque: William McGibbon

Another name familiar to me (because of having played on flute one of his sonatas) came up, the Scottish Baroque composer William McGibbon. Apparently the composer was inspired by the Italian style and incorporated into his piece, a sonata in the style of Corelli. I think it’s important to remember that even back in the 18th century, musicians were eager to learn from their counterparts in remote places in the world. Think of how much effort it took to visit or get word of what was going on in Italy, from Scotland!

Maritime Canada

Then we entered the world of Chris’s own heritage: he is from Maritime Canada. He did some singing in French as well as flute playing. It was the first time I had ever heard him sing, and it sounded similar to Cajun singing.

Back to Osvald

Then we returned to Osvald, for the “Hawthorn” sonata. I was very curious to hear this because I had never heard it played, but had played it myself on Baroque flute with Henry on piano, and run into problems because it was clearly meant for violin, given the crazy fast jig movement at the end.

It turned out that Chris took a break and sat out most of this sonata, ha! I enjoyed the opportunity to observe how Andrew on Baroque violin would play the first movement, to compare his style and choice of ornamentations with what I’ve done myself. He played it rather differently than how I play it. This is one of the fascinating things I like about Baroque music: there is a good deal of personal choice in how we feel and interpret it.

To my amusement, Chris did come in for the brief but crazy fast jig that was the third movement, showing off his triple-tonguing chops on flute. Whew!

Scottish smallpipes

We ended with Chris pulling out his Scottish smallpipes and playing on them. I had never seen this instrument before and was fascinated. In contrast to mouth-blown bagpipes, these are played with the arms only. A vigorous conclusion to the concert!


I chatted with Chris Norman a little afterwards. He seemed to recognize me from the jam session a year ago; that surprised me since I was just some quiet guy in the crowd who was still quite a beginner and didn’t play all that much. Anyway, I told him I was inspired by that jam session to not only play more traditional music of the kind that he plays (I got into Irish and French, buying myself an Irish flute), but also improving my technique considerably on Baroque flute. I asked him about his new work on making wooden flutes; I thought it was really cool that he not only plays them, but now makes them too, and why not, if you’re interested in the engineering aspects of creating the kind of sounds you want? This utter physicality of (non-digital) music is something that I’ve come to particularly appreciate.


I had a really great time at the concert at Bar Marco by Chris Norman and Chatham Baroque. I left inspired again to continue my own music-making and improve on it and incorporate my own personality into it, the way these fine musicians do. It was an hour well-spent.

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