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Bluegrass, classical to come together with RDSO, Jerusalem Ridge

From left: Jim Patton (Port of Coupeville manager), farm board manager Cheryl Sagmeister, Linda Lyshall (representing the governor), Eric Beamer (Skagit River research director) and Benye Weber (Port of Coupeville commissioner) listen to Greenbank spit resident Mike Stansburry (on a speaker phone) register landowners concerns regarding proposed salmon habitat.  - Jeff VanDerford
From left: Jim Patton (Port of Coupeville manager), farm board manager Cheryl Sagmeister, Linda Lyshall (representing the governor), Eric Beamer (Skagit River research director) and Benye Weber (Port of Coupeville commissioner) listen to Greenbank spit resident Mike Stansburry (on a speaker phone) register landowners concerns regarding proposed salmon habitat.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford

Imagining bluegrass and classical music fans together somehow brings to mind the ‘tomato-tomahto’ song by George and Ira Gershwin.

Bluegrass people might say tomato, classical people might say tomahto — but in the end, both appreciate the red salad staple, or in this case, good acoustic music.

“All audiences like to have a good time and get their money’s worth,” said Keith Burgess, bassist for Jerusalem Ridge.

The bluegrass band originally from Edmonton will perform Fire on the Mountain: A Bluegrass Musical Experience, with the RDSO at a sold-out concert at the Red Deer College Arts Centre on Saturday.

Tickets are still available for a dress rehearsal at 1:50 p.m. on the same day.

This means classically trained RDSO musicians will have a go at playing the twangy Man of Constant Sorrows, associated with the Soggy Bottom Boys of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Hearing Duelin’ Banjoes with orchestral accompaniment will leave both classical and bluegrass fans with a broader musical appreciation, promises Burgess.

And that was the idea behind the collaboration.

After 18 years of playing mostly for devout bluegrass fans, Jerusalem Ridge wanted to reach a wider audience.

Similarly, symphonic orchestras across the country were looking for ways of drawing bigger crowds, without losing the interest of loyal classical music listeners.

Burgess said the idea of setting some toe-tapping tunes to orchestral accompaniment was discussed by band members, and the same arranger’s name kept popping up again and again — Claude Lapalme.

Lapalme is known locally as the conductor of the RDSO. But he’s becoming known across Western Canada for creating symphonic scores for more contemporary musical styles.

Before working with Jerusalem Ridge, Lapalme had arranged the music of Ian Tyson and Michael Hope. “I don’t find it all that challenging,” said a candid Lapalme.

Within a couple of months in late 2005 he had arranged not only 17 bluegrass songs and a medley, but also created the Fire on the Mountain Overture that really impressed Burgess.

It draws from a trio of songs to trace the roots of bluegrass from the British Isles, to the shores of Newfoundland, and eventually the Appalachian Mountains of the southeastern U.S.

Lapalme admitted he initially doubted a few of the countrified tunes could be successfully adapted for a large orchestra. “But even the ones where I said, ‘You can’t be serious’ worked out well in the end.”

Previous Fire on the Mountain concerts with the Edmonton Symphony and Calgary Philharmonic Orchestras proved that classical musical fans really aren’t stuffy.

Burgess found “these people don’t like to be blasted out of their seats. But we’re playing something technically very sophisticated, and we’re playing it at palatable volumes.”

One bluegrass tune in particularly always seems to strike a chord.

Ashokan Farewell is a haunting contemporary piece written by Jay Unger in the style of a traditional Scottish lament. Burgess said the melody, which was used to underscore a moving scene in a PBS civil war documentary, “usually brings the house down.”

In the process of discovering the similarity between bluegrass and classical audiences, Burgess realized the same about his band and symphony musicians.

The four members of Jerusalem Ridge — including Craig Korth on banjo, Byron Myhre on fiddle, and Joe Teichroeb on guitar —?play by ear and don’t read sheet music.

Symphony musicians, on the other hand, “do nothing but read notes,” said Burgess.

But he found that both the band and orchestral musicians really appreciate good tunes.

“We like to talk about our old repertoire. . . they like to talk about their really old repertoire . . .” It took a short time to realize, “this is going to be a gas,” said Burgess.

Fire on the Mountain will be performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in March and there are discussions of taking it to Hamilton and Vancouver.

Tickets for the dress rehearsal are available from TicketMaster, or Sunworks and Comforts the Sole in downtown Red Deer. They are $17 each or $12 for a seat in the first four rows.

Contact Lana Michelin at lmichelin@reddeeradvocate.com

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