Fellowship of the Strings

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When the Grammy Award–winning Orpheus Chamber Orchestra took the stage May 9 at its annual gala concert in New York City’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, the string players were joined by a few unlikely collaborators at the “Bach to Brazil” program: Ivan Lins, a renowned Brazilian songwriter, and Cyro Padilla, a percussion dynamo, as well as two classical guitarists, propped themselves onstage right in front of the orchestra. The performance that followed infused traditional Bach and Chopin with 20th-century Brazilian dance music. Throughout the evening, the audience watched and listened with rapt attention as Orpheus explored the interactions and highlighted the similarities of some very different compositions.

The conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, now embarking on its 40th anniversary season, has become well known for its inventive performances and ensemble methods. Whether it’s playing a concert with violin virtuoso Gil Shaham at Carnegie Hall, or mandolinst Chris Thile (a Yo-Yo Ma collaborator on the recent Goat Rodeo Sessions) in Brooklyn’s trendy Dumbo neighborhood, or working with 30-year-old composer and pianist Gabriel Kahane—whom the New York Times has dubbed “a one-man cultural Cuisinart”—as its first composer-in-residence or teaching their innovative Orpheus Process of shared leadership to music and business students, Orpheus musicians always are looking forward.

“When we started out in the ’70s, we played a fairly narrow range of pieces,” Orpheus violinist Ronnie Bauch says.

“I think the things we’ve been playing this year in particular, or things that are scheduled for next year, are things we never would have imagined. 

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Ivry Gitlis Celebrates 90 Years

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Ivry Gitlis seems to play the violin from a place that knows something more about life; laughing where others fumble around in the dark. To the great joy of musicians who have befriended him, he is not hiding anything, and is willing to share what knowledge he has gained by living a life that is both inspired and inspiring. Emotive and lively, Gitlis has one of those rare personalities that permeate the souls of those who know him. Unsurprisingly, at 89, he’s a living legend among musicians.

On April 16, Gitlis joined violinists Maxim Vengerov, Janine Jansen, and Amihai Grosz; cellist Steven Isserlis; and pianist Martha Argerich in Brussels, where they got a jump on his upcoming 90th birthday by taking part in a concert in his honor at the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Among the works performed at the tribute: Vengerov’s stirring rendition of Variations on “God Save the King.”

Arabella Steinbacher, German concert violinist known for her polished technique, has received much musical inspiration from Gitlis, a friend and mentor. A few years ago, on the advice of her teacher, Ana Chumachenko, Steinbacher met Gitlis in Paris when she was 19. “He’s so different from anyone else I know. It’s always incredibly interesting just to spend time with him, to watch how he lives. Through his whole attitude about making music, he really opened my eyes.”

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Profile: Zoe Muth

WITH HER BAND’S NAME (the Lost High Rollers) taken from the Townes Van Zandt song “No Lonesome Tune” and her album (Starlight Hotel) named for “an old flophouse in Seattle,” singer-songwriter Zoe Muth has established herself with a vintage country sound and songwriting inspired by Bob Dylan and Iris DeMent. “The person who most inspired me to write was Bob Dylan,” she says, “but I figured out early I couldn’t replicate that. I tried to sing Emmylou Harris songs too, but realized I had to make it on my songwriting as opposed to my singing.”

Starlight Hotel is an amazing collection of songs that blends Muth’s vocals and delicate fingerpicking with the all-around musical prowess of her band mates (including Seattle country veteran Dave Harmonson on pedal steel, dobro, and electric guitar, and mandolinist Ethan Lawton). “They recently kicked everyone in the Starlight Hotel out to turn it into a fancy hotel,” Muth says of the title track. “I named the album that right before that happened, but there is some commentary on the record about working class life and about poverty in America. In that song I tried to look at the reasons for feelings of isolation in American society.”

Themes of isolation and loneliness run throughout the record. One of the standouts is “New Mexico.” Mandolin flourishes, languid tremolo, and country guitar licks add to Muth’s slow, dreamy vocals and poetic imagery: “Dirty old blackbird landed on my windowsill / I didn’t want him to leave so I sat there watching him perfectly still / And when he finally flew / And when he finally flew / I asked him to cut a hole in the morning sky / That I could pass right on through.”

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Growing up in 1980s Seattle, where grunge was taking root, Muth became enamored with folk music in high school, and started teaching herself to play guitar using Beatles songbooks. After getting her start playing solo at open mics in Seattle and meeting Harmonson and Lawton, Muth decided the pair would be a good match for the songs she was writing. “I convinced them to play around town with me for a few beers,” she says. A few years later, they added Greg Nies (drums) and Mike McDermott (bass), who had been touring with other Americana bands in the area.

“I’ve been lucky to find four guys who don’t have a problem listening to a woman. Everyone says, ‘You’re the boss,’ which in some ways is a huge responsibility,” she says. “But they listen to what I need onstage and play to support the lyrics. My priority is writing a good song. I keep it simple and let the band make it more interesting.”

“Playing with Zoe is a great gig,” Harmonson says. “She writes wonderful songs and all I have to do is color them a bit. It’s been amazing to be playing around the world with her and the Lost High Rollers.” Influenced by pedal steel masters such as Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green, and John Hughey, Harmonson’s style and years of experience perfectly complement Muth’s country leanings.

At the age of 32, Muth has played with artists such as Kinky Friedman, Fred Eaglesmith, and Dave Alvin, appeared at the No Depression and Bumbershoot festivals in Seattle, and toured Wales, Scotland, Sweden, and Norway.