Symphony, Americana acts join forces

Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 2:12pm
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Abby Washington

Americana music has always been broader and more inclusive than just singer/songwriters performing acoustic sounds. But Saturday night’s Classical Americana event at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center will explore a fusion that even adventurous music fans might not have thought possible, a merger of classical and American roots strains.

An amazing list of guest performers are joining forces with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Albert-George Schram. They will perform a host of styles, among them blues and gospel, show tunes and pre-rock standards, plus modern classical works in a bold and ambitious program that should be particularly appealing to those music lovers who disdain artificial divisions and rigid categorization.

A trio of powerhouse performers from the acoustic world is among the instrumentalists. Alison Brown is among the finest banjo soloists in the world and also helped form and still operates Compass Records, a label famous for its array of skilled world, folk, country, bluegrass and even jazz artists. Sam Bush has won countless awards for his playing flair on many instruments and is an incredible player in any context. He’ll be appearing on mandolin for this event. Jerry Douglas has also earned many plaudits and honors for his expertise and versatility as a session musician and bandleader, and he’ll be appearing on mandolin.

From the world of blues comes a truly legendary figure that will also be part of this ensemble. Guitarist/vocalist David “Honeyboy” Edwards just turned 94 last month, and he, along with his longtime friend pianist Pinetop Perkins (who is 96), represents the last of the great Delta musicians. Edwards’ famous 1942 sessions were recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, and he cites such magical names as Robert Johnson and Robert Lockwood Jr. among his friends. Edwards, who appeared in the 2007 film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, still performs about 100 shows a year and won a Grammy in 2008.

Vocalists Karen Parks and Abigail Washburn work different sides of the musical street, but each is a brilliant and celebrated star. Parks’ abilities as a classical singer were noticed when she was 13, picked out of her school chorus in South Carolina and given special training at that state’s Fine Arts Center. Parks subsequently earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance from Furman University and the University of Texas, respectively, and later was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for voice, which enabled her to study with Maestro Gabriele Pisani at the famed La Scala Opera House in Milan.

Parks has appeared in numerous operas around the worlds and done several highly praised albums of chamber music. She’s even done plays in London and America and is also a top voice instructor. Parks has also recorded several discs of music by black classical composers as well as spirituals and Americana pieces.

Abigail Washburn is a superb clawhammer banjo player in addition to being a marvelous singer. She divides her time between old-time bands Uncle Earl and Sparrow Quartet but has also recorded outstanding discs in other idioms. Washburn’s debut solo release Song of the Traveling Daughter was produced by Bela Fleck and included a pair of tunes in Mandarin Chinese as well as the more customary folk, bluegrass, country and old-time music she usually performs. Fleck also produced the 2008 Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet. This past year, the Quartet appeared at the benefit concert celebrating Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday. Washburn also did a benefit EP with the Shanghai Restoration Project’s David Liang to assist victims of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.

Rounding out the band is the fine bassist Byron House and the masterful guitarist Buddy Miller, who will once again be leading the house band for next week’s Americana Music Awards.

What: Classical Americana, a concert exploring the ties between American roots sounds and classical music
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center
Cost: $15-$65
Info: 687-6500