Lenoir-Rhyne’s Concert Series continued with the Kruger Brothers and the Kontras Quartet teaming up to perform the local favorite Appalachian Concerto and other works. Attendance was high and the crowd was loud in their support of two top-notch area ensembles coming together. While Kontras is technically based in Chicago, they served as quartet in residence for the Western Piedmont Symphony for four years and have been proudly claimed as local talent by the area arts scene. The Kruger Brothers call Wilkesboro, NC, home, a short jaunt through the foothills by mountain standards.
The Kruger Brothers demonstrate a wonderful hybrid of musical styles that might best be termed bluegrassical – if readers will allow the admittedly tacky musical portmanteau. Jens Kruger’s compositions and arrangements and Uwe Kruger’s songs feature all the elegant and complex musicianship of classically trained players while retaining the humble, down-to-earth honesty of the bluegrass picker. Joel Landsberg is in his 25th year of playing with the Kruger Brothers and adds an indescribable musical sensitivity and grounding to their songs with his bass playing – never showy and always exactly where he needs to be. Berni Velluti, the sound engineer, provided tasteful amplification that brought out every detail of the ensembles.
The program was announced from the stage. While this format typically provides more flexibility for the musicians as well as a better connection with the audience, concert-goers missed out on thoughtful program notes that explain the programmatic aspects of some of Jens Kruger’s compositions. For a more detailed description of the story behind the music – especially Appalachian Concerto and the new work Lucid Dreamer – readers can look here or here.
Kruger Brothers and Kontras opened with Appalachian Concerto, commissioned by the Ashe County Arts Council and composed in 2010 by Jens Kruger. The work features a creative, musical portrait of the immigrant experience of integrating cultural roots into an American experience. It is a three-movement work for string quartet, guitar, and bass, and featuring a banjo soloist. Kontras handled the bluegrass elements more gracefully than other quartets have in the past; it can be difficult to play stylistically authentic music when the style itself is a hybrid, but Kontras appeared equally comfortable with “fiddlin’” and with the classical elements of the work. The piece was polished with subtle phrasing and tight communication and was received with a standing ovation by the enthusiastic crowd.
The next piece was “Carolina in the Fall,” a tender, nostalgic song by Uwe Kruger. Apparently, NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall is so taken with the tune that she is campaigning for it to become the new state song. “Old North State” fans beware, for “Carolina in the Fall” has the acute perception of an outsider as well as all the love of someone who would move halfway across the world to make the Carolina foothills home.
Following intermission, the combined ensembles presented a new piece, Lucid Dreamer. This piece is Kontras’ first commissioned work, funded by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program along with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund. This new work was premiered during the Raleigh, NC, Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in October, 2014. Jens Kruger writes that the piece is considerably more complex than Appalachian Concerto. In his introduction to the piece, Jens described the work as being inspired by the power of music to evoke images in the listener.
Lucid Dreamer is indeed quite different from Appalachian Concerto. While it does include bluegrass duels of virtuosity in the same manner of the earlier work, this piece features moments of complex contrapuntal writing, a higher level of chromaticism, and more shifts between styles than Appalachian Concerto. The arrangement progresses slowly throughout the piece from alternation to integration of the string quartet and the bluegrass trio. Ai Ishida, viola, had a notably acrobatic and graceful solo in what appeared to be the third movement of the piece. The movement, exclusively written for the string quartet, featured some exciting col legno playing as well as a delightfully competitive, yet playful spirit. The fourth movement was almost reminiscent of a French art song, while the fifth brought back the Americana sound that listeners associate with much of Jens Kruger’s writing.
Lucid Dreamer was followed by “Jason,” a somewhat bluesy tune that incorporated a pop string sound to support the trio. An unusual cover of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” followed. The combined ensembles supported the happy and yet bittersweet nature of the song, but the arrangement lacked the sense of cohesion evident in the Krugers’ original music.
The final work on the program was “Jack of the Wood,” a rousing tune written for a bar in Asheville, NC, of the same name. The audience demanded another toe-tapping encore as well.
Lenoir-Rhyne’s Concert Series continues on May 2nd, and the Kruger/Kontras dream team is making another appearance at MerleFest in late April if you missed them this time around.