Wednesday, April 4, 2012

CSO Meets Bluegrass

You've probably heard the expression "opposites attract."   The phrase is generally used in reference to people who don't seem to have much in common but end up being a fabulous pair because they complement each other in unexpected ways.   It takes an open-minded person to look past the differences and envision a partnership that builds on the strengths of both parties.  There's no doubt that Maestro Francis Wada brings such an open-minded--not to mention creative--attitude to his role as music director and conductor of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.  Who else would go to a Jim Morris concert and say, "Hey, that guy should perform with us!" or go--reluctantly--to a Bluegrass Festival and come away with an idea for a collaboration between a symphony and a bluegrass band???    And that brings us to last Sunday night's CSO Pops Concert:  Symphony  Meets Bluegrass.

The first half of the concert featured the Kruger Brothers on their own (well, on their own plus bass player Joel Landsberg).  I was quite surprised when Jens Kruger started speaking and he had a German accent.  What kind of bluegrass would this be?  It turns out that these Swiss-German brothers grew up listening to LPs of American music. When they stumbled upon some folk music--specifically some folk music featuring a banjo--there was no turning back.   As the brothers told their story, the audience laughed out loud at the thought of these teenagers sitting in their bedroom in Switzerland translating "This Land is Your Land" into German and introducing the music into a culture of yodelers.  They also told some hilarious stories--with some great music thrown in along the way--about adapting their repertoire to appeal to the audiences where they appear.  Who knew that you could play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or "Fiddler on the Roof" on a banjo?  Or that a banjo could actually sound like a steel drum (which came in handy when they played at the Mozart Concert in Jamaica)?  Yes, the evening was full of surprises, with perhaps the most pleasant surprise being their original composition called "Beautiful Nothing."  This song was composed at a time when they were rehearsing their music in a church and realized the beauty of the sound of chords fading out into silence.  It was a wonderful way to end the first half of the evening's performance.

The second half of the evening featured the CSO and the Kruger Brothers playing some selections from "Music from the Spring:  A Romantic Serenade for Banjo, Guitar, Bass & Orchestra" composed by Jens Kruger.  (It turns out that Maestro Wada isn't the only one with exciting ideas about blending different types of music!)   I was quite curious to see how--and if--this combination would actually work.  The answer is a resounding "yes."  It's impossible for me to describe in words how this interaction worked, but suffice it to say that the strings got a pretty good work out!  The Maestro did as well, and I thought at some points that he would break into a dance as he was conducting.   (If you're curious, check out this promo that the Kruger Brothers have put together on YouTube.  The orchestra they're playing with isn't identified but I suspect it's the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, as that's who played with them for the world premiere of the score.)   

All in all, it was a fun and interesting evening of music.  As Maestro Wada puts down his baton and we move into a new era at the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, I can only hope that our next maestro will continue to challenge our musicians to go beyond their comfort zones.  These musicians have proven time and time again that they can meet these challenges, and the result has been exhilarating.  What will the future of the CSO be under new leadership?   Tune in next season to find out!  

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