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Last Thursday, the Kruger Brothers, a trio of imported Appalachian music stars, joined with the Hayes Faculty Ensemble in an evening of classy bluegrass as part of the Appalachian State University Performing Arts Series. The program, offered to a full and enthusiastic house, ranged from traditional folk music to a concerto commissioned by the Ashe County Arts Council and written by Jens Kruger.
The Kruger Brothers, namely Jens and Uwe Kruger playing banjo and guitar joined by Joel Landsberg on bass, make up a bluegrass sound defined by a high level of musicianship, intuitive communication, and simple honesty. Jens and Uwe Kruger, originally from Switzerland, now proudly claim North Carolina as their home. Through music and story, the brothers told a compelling tale of their childhood classical training, discovery of Appalachian folk music, and eventual journey to the home of the music they love.
Their technique is often virtuosic, but they never lose sight of the humble beginnings of the bluegrass tradition. Jens gets a certain tenderness out of his banjo, an instrument often characterized as having a brazen sound. Uwe’s vocals are unassuming and frank; his guitar picking carries on in Doc Watson’s tradition. Landsberg is the farthest thing from being a third wheel. He comes from a completely different background from the Krugers — he “escaped” New York a good while ago, according to the man himself — but his playing has the same depth and creativity. He contributes exactly what the music calls for without ever being obtrusive.
The first half of the program was performed by the bluegrass boys alone. Notable songs included “When I’m Dead my Dearest” (a deceptively simple setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem “Song”), the toe-tapping “Jack of the Woods,” and the traditional “People Get Ready.” Nothing could beat, however, hearing “Carolina in the Fall” in the heart of the High Country in September. The heartfelt longing for the fall leaves, as well as a transparent joy of playing, was evident in both the simple lyrics and in the home-grown melodies. The energetic numbers were bursting with creativity and energy, featuring this ensemble’s unique sound that slips in classical riffs and jazz harmonic references almost without the audience being aware of the face. Jens Kruger said, apologetically, “I know there were a lot of notes, and some of them weren’t necessary — but we were having fun.”
The audience got a laugh when Jens Kruger described the typical reaction in Europe when he mentioned that he played banjo and wanted to work with a chamber ensemble. The mentality of bridging the gap between formal and vernacular music, however, is one familiar to today’s Carolinian listeners. The Appalachian Concerto is a work that does just that, written for the Kruger Brothers’ normal instrumentation plus a string quartet. It has three movements, each having one or more subtitles.
Jens Kruger spoke in detail about the meaning behind each section. The first movement begins “Morning at Deep Gap,” built of references to many different Old World musical influences, from Slavic to Irish. It eventually brings them together in an all-American sort of blend where the differing elements can still be distinguished, but the dominant characteristic is “E Pluribus Unum.” It moves into the rollicking “Wild Horses,” which follows the hoedown tradition. The second movement, “As Far As the Eye Can See” and “Gone, but not Forgotten,” focuses more on the role of the string quartet, capitalizing on intriguing shifts between harmonic and melodic writing in the lower parts. The last movement, “The New Country,” features the strongest integration of styles between the two halves of the chamber group.
Jens Kruger’s writing is intriguing. The timbre of a banjo doubled by a single viola is not one that many have had the privilege of hearing, and it certainly catches attention. While the orchestration is ear-catching, Jens’ true compositional strength of this work lies is in the harmonic writing for the strings, which support his virtuosic banjo pickin’ in a surprisingly natural way. Some of the contrapuntal work was also masterful, drawing on old compositional techniques with Appalachian melodic shaping.
The Hayes Faculty Ensemble, Nancy Bargerstock, violin; Chung Park, violin, Eric Koontz, viola, and Kenneth Lurie, cello, joined the Kruger Brothers for the concerto. Their communication and blend were remarkable, especially considering recent changes in personnel (Dr. Park joined the Appalachian State University Faculty this semester). At times, the ensemble shifted somewhat uneasily between performing and fiddlin’. The synthesis of bluegrass and classical is not one that comes easily, but by the end of the work, the two ensembles achieved a sense of unity.
The sold-out crowd was appreciative, attempting a standing ovation after the first movement, and demanding “Wild Horses” once more at the close of the concerto.