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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Concert Review: Plucked Courage

The Jake Schepps Quintet at SubCulture.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Members of the Jake Schepps Quintet with Mr. Schepps second from right,
onstage Wednesday night at SubCulture.
Photo by the author (who's no photographer--give him a break.)
The instruments of traditional Appalachian string music (banjo, mandolin, fiddle, double bass, acoustic guitar) are generally associated with American roots rather than the performance of classical or modern "art" music. Sure there are a few recent examples of cross-over (Peter Schickele's "Kentucky cantata" Blaues Gras coming immediately to mind) but it's not a group of instruments one associates with cerebral music.On Wednesday night, the Jake Schepps Quintet challenged that thesis with a bright and innovative performance at the downtown performing arts space SubCulture.

This was a showcase gig for Mr. Schepps, who just released Entwined, an album of new music with the Quintet. Although there was one lineup change (Jordan Tice stepping in on acoustic guitar) this ensemble proved to be as tight as any string quartet as they played a mix of Bartók, traditional music, their own compositions and works by  contemporary composers.

Led by Mr. Schepps, whose nimble 5-string banjo provided much of the evening's forward momentum and rhythmic drive, the ensemble opened with Tension Hoop and Herringbone; two movements from Flatiron. This is a 2012 suite of movements from contemporary composer Marc Mellits. These movements featured the instruments engaging a slow build using minimal building blocks, with the percussive interplay of the strings recalling some of the work of Steve Reich.

The ensemble then played movements from Drawn, a contemporary work by Matt McBain. (The composer was in attendance.) Entwined started slowly with a toccata-like figure and the instruments playing call-and-resonse. Ground was written around a steady, hypnotic bassline with the strummed instruments scratching and skittering like a DJ on turntables.

Mr. Schepps shifted gears to the 20th century composer Béla Bartók, whose music was heavily influenced by folksongs recorded in his native Hungary. For this concert, Mr. Schepps selected The Five-Tone Scale, No. 78 from the composer's piano exercise work Mikrokosmos. This was paired with the traditional, fiddle-driven Cousin SallyBrown.  Bassist Eric Thorin then switched to fiddle for Fire and Ash, a roots tune based on his home of North Carolina. Another bassist joined the band for this sextet piece with keening lines and sweet cries of passion coming from beneath the aller bow.

The third major work on the Quintet's new album is Migrations, a four-part composition by mandolinist Matt Flinner. Mr. Flinner's work evokes both the sound of his native Tennessee and the pre-country picking of musicians like Earl Scruggs and Chet Atkins. This was melodic and engaging music, relating the stories of economic hardship and urban population change in the South.

Then it was time for more solo spotlights. Violinist Ryan Drickey led a Rylander, a traditional Swedish fiddle tune that bears some resemblence to the Hungarian czardasz Guest guitar player Jordan Tice played the Forest Waltz from his solo album with a stunning technique and sure rhythmic chops.

All five musicians took solos in The Farewell Blues, a high-speed ramble that featured virtuoso playing, jazzy improvisations and that thrusting, energetic rhythm that has made bluegrass popular again in this modern age. The audience's acclaim led to an encore, two more atmospheric selections from Flatiron. Although bluegrass can be toe-tappin' fun, the Quintet proved tonight that this could also be serious music.

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