Three bluegrass wizards known as the Kruger Brothers, who now make their home in North Carolina, were the featured artists in the Hendersonville Symphony’s last concert of the season at Blue Ridge Community College’s Conference Hall. Five string banjo player Jens Kruger and guitarist Uwe Kruger were joined by bassist Joel Landsberg and Lou Mondeli on trap set. Touching on the theme of Appalachia, conductor and music director Thomas Joiner coupled an old standard, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, with fiddler Mark O’Connor’s "Appalachia Waltz" and Jens Kruger’s Music from the Spring: A Romantic Serenade for Banjo, Guitar, Bass & Orchestra, Part II. Kruger’s work, an award-winning, romping vehicle of display for the Trio, brought the audience to its feet in a rousing ovation toward the end of the second half.
Copland’s iconic suite from the ballet score known as Appalachian Spring opened the concert. A work with enormous popular appeal and accessibility, Copland’s score was fashioned in 1943-44 for Martha Graham’s dance company, and later fully orchestrated. The music is redolent of dance rhythms as well as contemplative moments, all crowned by a magnificent set of variations on the Shaker hymn tune “Tis the gift to be simple.” Though this was undoubtedly the most difficult music of the evening for the orchestra, they performed it with warmth and verve, culminating in the beautifully nuanced Shaker variations, the heart of the piece.
Next before intermission was O’Connor’s "Appalachia Waltz," a work of simple tunefulness that meanders slowly and seamlessly through the strings. O’Connor is a virtuoso of both violin and fiddle; it’s probably in the latter idiom, done in “Texas fiddle style” and as a much-sought-after Nashville recording artist where he’s made his claim to fame. The work was originally written for the trio of the composer on fiddle, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and bassist Edgar Meyer. In its incarnation as an orchestral piece, I missed the intimacy of the trio that is so much at the heart of the piece.
After intermission the Kruger Brothers took the stage, performing at first a set by themselves. Their style, ramped up by amplification, is predicated on the ability to play fast and long, changing up meters unexpectedly and strumming styles. Some vocals were sung, and although this was mic’d as well, from where I sat I failed to catch any of the lyrics. The set ended with “Sarah,” an instrumental piece that brimmed with their signature energy. The orchestra joined them in Music from the Spring, a work that received its premiere with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra in June 2007. This suite of nine movements — “A Beautiful Nothing,” “Roll Away,” “High Up in the Sky,” “Winterport,” “Shower,” “Premonitions I-IV,” “Gentle Touch of Falling Leaves,” “Private Angel,” and “Pacific Morning” — unfolded seamlessly from beginning to end with vocals in places. Several of the movements sounded alike, so much so that it was easy to get lost, at least on this first hearing. The suite is electrifying, loud, and relentless in its demands on the soloists, with the orchestra relegated mainly to sustained harmonies and the occasional melody until the last movement’s thunderous, toe-tapping climax. Especially noteworthy was the extended banjo cadenza by Jens Kruger mid-way, a stunning and stylistically eclectic tour-de-force.
Two short works concluded the program — “Kerry Merrum,” a romping, stomping Celtic reel in which Joiner himself snatched up a fiddle to the delight of the audience, and the slower, sentimental tribute to friendship, “See You Again.” Judging by the bobbing heads, tapping feet, and thunderous ovation, this unique concert by the Hendersonville Symphony will be a hard act to follow.
Corporate sponsor was Southern Alarm and Security; media sponsors were Morris Broadband and Summit Marketing Group. The Trio was sponsored by Joan and Buck Blessing.