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!