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The "talabard" (in the Breton language) is known as the bombarde in French and the bombard in English. A conical-bore wind instrument, the bombard looks somewhat like a soprano recorder in shape and size. Its thick double reed, however, produces a surprising amount of sound. I would characterize it as having the intensity of a trumpet but a tonal quality similar to other double-reed instruments (oboe, bassoon, and a well-played set of bagpipes). My guess is that the bombard, like the piccolo trumpet, is a physically demanding instrument to play, requiring great breath control. Also like the piccolo trumpet, the bombard must be expertly played for its tonal quality to please the listener. It is easy to be strident on such a bright instrument.
Fortunately, on Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Asheville, the audience was given an excellent introduction to this unfamiliar instrument in a performance of high quality as performed by members of Pan Harmonia, a chamber music repertory company based in the same city. The musicians were Rosalind Buda, the classical bassoonist and Celtic wind player, in collaboration with organist Barbara Weiss. This coupling is normal; much Breton music links the bombard with the pipe organ. Buda played two different sizes of bombard, also shifting to the bassoon and the Scottish smallpipes for half the selections. Weiss shifted from the pipe organ to the modern melodica when appropriate, and both musicians doubled on the tambourine on occasion. The repertoire for this 70-minute program consisted of traditional Breton tunes and adaptations. Notable among these were three twentieth-century adaptations by Germain Desbonnet (1938-2007), a contemporary bombard musician and composer.
The recital drew an audience of sixty, and twice during the program, audience participation was enlisted. In "Trogadec," the melody was performed on pipe organ and smallpipes, then on bassoon, and finally the spectators were invited to sing the haunting tune along with the instrumentalists. Later in the program, more than forty in attendance accepted the invitation to learn the "An Dro" dance – a simple line dance.
To this listener, the high point of the concert was Desbonnet's beautiful "Air de Kernascléden," published in 1998. In this piece, the composer displays complexity and a touch of modernity that underscores (and does not conflict with) the ancient Breton air that he had chosen to adapt. Kernascléden is in Morbihan, the penultimate western department of France. Only Finistere is further west, and then the broad Atlantic.
The final work was "Jezus Kroedur" ("Infant Jesus" in English), as arranged in part by Weiss and Buda and performed on the bombard, organ and melodica simultaneously. At times, the melodica provided the drone, while the bombard and organ alternated with the tune. At other times, the melodica provided the tune, the bombard a countermelody and the organ provided the drone. It was a physical feat for Weiss to manage her manuals and her pedals.
Listening to this music carried this listener back many years, reminding me of when I attended a festival in Concarneau and was delighted by the baked goods, the crepes, the shellfish (les fruits de mer) and the traditional Breton costumes, especially the starched headdress of Le pays Bigouden. Pan Harmonia stresses innovative programming, and this fine introduction to a traditional Breton Celtic instrument brought me memories and showed how appealing such programming can be. I expect each audience member had a different but equally satisfying experience.