A little game of name-that-tune was all it took to bring about a concert this Sunday that may further serve to bridge the gulf – narrowing steadily in recent years – between classical and Americana music.
It came about last year, when Blue Ridge Orchestra conductor Ron Clearfield was leading his group’s string section through an informal showcase outside of Earth Fare. They struck up a medley of traditional mountain tunes arranged for classical players, but before they did, Clearfield challenged anyone in the audience to name them all. Unbeknownst to the maestro, tucked among the rabble that day – with their spring water, their royal jelly, their bags of organic greens – was a champion bluegrass fiddler.
The medley finished; the crowd parted. “So this guy comes up and he knows all the tunes,” says Clearfield. “He introduces himself to me, and it turns out he’s a legend, pretty much the godfather of bluegrass violin.”
OK, so the maestro may need to brush up on his terminology a bit: Away from the podium and the orchestra pit, the instrument is known as a “fiddle,” and the guy who stepped up that day was bluegrass leading light Bobby Hicks. In 1954, Hicks went to work for Bill Monroe, the late “Father of Bluegrass,” and has, since the 1970s, collaborated with Ricky Skaggs, first in Skaggs’ country outfit and more recently in his bluegrass group Kentucky Thunder. Hicks, who grew up in Newton, N.C., lives today near Asheville.
As a result of that chance meeting with Clearfield, Hicks will join the Blue Ridge Orchestra in its Sunday performance at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium. The program is stuffed as tight as a breakfast link, with music to please the most staid listener as well as the stompingest classical-music outsider. Local 10-year-old violin prodigies Emily Elliot-Gaines and Kay Nakazawa will perform Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. The show will also feature selections from American populist composer Aaron Copland, as well as folk melodies from both sides of the Atlantic.
Classical music has made overtures – fitful but earnest – to the humble strains of traditional American music at least since the 19th century. Antonin Dvorak was inspired through his stay here in the 1890s to include folk and gospel touches in his famous New World Symphony. But no one did more to evoke the spirit of Americana than Copland, who first flourished as a composer about the time Bill Monroe picked up the mandolin. Copland’s musical signature – the stacked fifths, the buddies-in-the-saddle rhythms – are as recognizably American as they are appealing.
“Copland was a champion of that – taking Americana music and weaving variations on it,” says Clearfield.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association may have besmirched Copland’s memory by using his “Hoe-Down,” the last movement from his Rodeo Suite, to move sirloin, but the tune endures. In fact, the melody that frames “Hoe-Down” is Copland’s own riff on “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” a fiddle tune that appears across the South in a thousand permutations.
Copland’s “Hoe-Down” is on Sunday’s program at UNCA, along with other selections from Rodeo Suite. The orchestra will also perform the Celtic-tinged melody “Lord of the Dance,” and “Ashokan Farewell,” written by Jay Ungar and familiar to many from the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. Alongside more expected orchestral arrangements, the rosin will fly when Hicks performs the fiddle houseburner “Orange Blossom Special” and his own swing-flavored tune “Estrellita.”
Formed in 1999, the Blue Ridge Orchestra has established itself both as a showcase for local talent and an educational resource by hauling its annual performances of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf into area schools, paired with the Asheville Ballet.
Sunday’s concert is billed as a “family event.” Clearfield says the point – beyond simple fun – will be to trace the violin’s historical trek from the European continent during the Baroque period (hence the Bach concerto); to the British Isles, where it became a mainstay of traditional music; to the American South, where it continues to shape tradition in the hands of musicians like Hicks.
“You don’t find many places that have such a strong musical heritage as we do here,” says Clearfield. “Getting Bobby Hicks on stage with us, bringing people together like this – this is real fusion.”
Bobby Hicks will perform with the Blue Ridge Orchestra Sunday, March 12, at 3 p.m. at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium. Tickets are $10/adults, $7/students and seniors, $5/children. UNCA students get in free with a valid ID. 252-0643.