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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Canadian Group Fuses Bluegrass And Tchaikovsky On Holiday CD

Pipistrelle Music

Every year, radio stations are deluged with new Christmas albums, and Texas Public Radio is no different. This year, I came across one that made its way to the top of my listening stack. The Canadian group Ensemble Polaris boasts diverse instrumentation, including guitar, banjo, mandolin, bagpipe, musical saw, recorders and winds. Their new album, “Nutcracker Nouveau,” is a delight, featuring rustic takes on the music of Tchaikovsky as well as traditional Russian melodies.

The “Trepak” opens the album with banjo and fiddle, and a wordless vocal that sounds lifted from the “Raising Arizona” soundtrack until you realize Katherine Hill is actually singing the melody from the Overture to “The Nutcracker.” The “Waltz of the Flowers” sounds inspired by the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt, with its breezy guitar strumming and gently swinging woodwind lines. For the “Arabian” and “Chinese” dances, Polaris takes the titles more literally than Tchaikovsky, including field recordings of Turkish musicians and authentic Chinese instruments such as the guzheng.

The folk selections on “Nutcracker Nouveau” include the delicate “Kazanka” and a hand-clapping, foot-stomping take on the Russian melody “Juniper On The Hill” that manages to incorporate bluegrass and West African influences.

All of the tracks are sure to put a smile on your face this season, but I even laughed out loud when I heard the bagpipes mashing up Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with Tchaikovsky. I think you will too. “Nutcracker Nouveau” is quirky without being precious or cheesy. The musicians are serious about having fun. It’s hard not to get swept up in their enthusiasm!

Nathan has been with TPR since 1995, when he began working on classical music station KPAC 88.3 FM, as host of “Tuesday Night at the Opera.” He soon learned the ropes on KSTX 89.1 FM, and volunteered to work practically any shift that came his way, on either station. He worked in nearly every capacity on the radio before moving into Community Engagement, Marketing, and Digital Media. His reporting and criticism has been honored by the Houston Press Club and Texas Associated Press.