Yes, the band was excellent. Yes, the bagpipers were grand, as only bagpipers can be. Yes, the drummers were razzle-dazzle in technique, flinging their beaters in complex aerial ballet between strikes. Yes, the kilt-swinging attire was nothing short of glorious, a sartorial monument to Scottish and British history. Yes, when all played and marched together, it was genuinely rousing, as was attested by the whoop-and-holler applause from an audience peppered with Scots-files.
Yes, even if they had not played a note, it would have been impressive and interesting just to be in the presence of The Pipes and Drums of The Black Watch 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiments of Scotland and The Band of the Scots Guards.
And yes, everyone in the mostly full Valley Performing Arts Center Friday night appeared to have a fine time of it. Even 88-year-old June Lockhart (looking terrific), who hobnobbed with one of the Black Watch regiment members in the lobby beforehand. (Well, she was Lassie’s mom. . .)
But. . .
Now, I speak with the utmost respect for tradition of almost any sort, especially in an era when the attitude default mechanism is mockery. The gallantry, sacrifice, and heroism of The Scots Guards, formed in 1642, and The Black Watch, begun in 1725, are legend, as the program notes thoroughly explained. Seeing and hearing The Black Watch pipes, drums, and band in person gave some punch to this rather hackneyed sentence from the notes:
“The sound of the pipes has long instilled a great sense of pride and passion which has both inspired Scottish soldiers in the heat of battle and driven fear into the enemy as kilted Highlanders advanced towards them.”
(It would scare me, too.)
And The Black Watch band has long toured North America, beginning in Boston in 1872. What’s more, there is affectionate history between this country and The Black Watch band, drummers, pipers, who performed for President John F. Kennedy and family nine days before his assassination Nov. 22, 1963. Jacqueline Kennedy invited Black Watch pipers to take part in the funeral procession of her husband.
But. . .
Half-way through the first half of the performance, I felt as if I was watching an infomercial for the CDs, programs, T-shirts being sold in the lobby. So much so that by intermission, I was gone, not to return.
The problem is the format and presentation, not the musicians. First, the program had a corny, touristy title, “British Isles of Wonder,” plus what was either canned narration, or so perfectly intonated from offstage that it might as well have been canned narration. The Black Watch drilled and played in obvious subservience to the narration. When a performance is so steeped in precision in every way, this was gilding the lily.
I found myself yearning for, craving, even the slightest bit of spontaneity. Instead of an invisible narrator speaking in the robotic tones of a radio announcer, why not an engaging host, striding the stage, explaining a little of the Black Watch history, the garb, how a particular piece of music came to be favored? Perhaps telling a moving story, an amusing one, a tragic one? This would have greatly humanized and brought warmth to proceedings that were too much a March of the Wooden Soldiers.
Which brings up another part of the problem here, no fault whatsoever of The Black Watch players:
The difficulty with bringing a marching band to a stage is, you guessed it, there is . . . nowhere to march! The band, the pipers, the drummers did their best to cope with this, heroically marching left, then right, then left, then right, then to the back, then to the fore, and eventually in a criss-cross maneuver that must have been rather tough in such limited space.
Nitpicky? Perhaps. But as much as I tried to resist, I could not keep John Cleese’s voice out of my head from the Monty Python routine, “Marching Up and Down The Square.” You got anything better to do? Well? Anyone got anything they’d rather be doing than marching up and down the square?
Still and all, there was much well-played music on hand, from Sousa to U.S. and British national anthems, a “dance set” of Scottish tunes, a “Spirit of England” set with a good deal of Elgar, and any number of tunes with poetic titles such as “The Old Rustic Bridge,” “The Ale is Dear,” “Flowers of the Forest,” “The Piper of Dundee,” and, yes, the inevitable “Amazing Grace.”
Yet without a host to provide a detail here, an anecdote there, a touch of historical context or humor, it was one big rigid-fest. I would not be surprised if this has been filmed exactly as is for marketing on PBS.
Now that I’ve probably inflamed the ire of all the Scots-files in the VPAC audience, I’m sure it will do no good to mention my own Scottish heritage or the fact that I once interviewed the courageous hero of World War II, Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, who famously ordered his personal piper to pipe his commandos ashore at Normandy. (In whose presence I felt very small, indeed.) And that one of my favorite records of all time is Andy Stewart’s “A Scottish Soldier.”
So pipe me out, laddies.