The Center at Eagle Hill is nestled in the small town of Hardwick MA. A more unlikely place to find a performance center couldn’t be found. “The Center is a place to celebrate the culture of Central Massachusetts and beyond. The Center provides a new venue for learning, creating, exhibiting, performing, and enjoying art.” (from the web page). Hardwick is a quiet, rural community of about 2,900 people. The town is half way between Amherst and Worcester, MA. Folks generally enjoy an agrarian lifestyle and reflect strong Yankee values of simplicity, harmony and balance with nature. Local offerings include a terrific Farmer’s Co-Op, The Hardwick Winery and, Robinson Dairy Farm . This summer saw the 252nd Hardwick Community Fair and claims to be the oldest continuous agrarian fair in the United States.
The Rose 32 Bread located in the village of Gilbertville in Hardwick MA is a jewel for local foodies and the odd traveler who may find themselves out this way. The staff make the best breads, cakes, and pastries, as well as offering a sweet breakfast and lunch menu. The bakery and cafe are squashed into a refurbished garage. The eating area indoors is tight and resembles a trattoria style of dining, noisy, busy but scrumptious. Outdoor dining is available in warmer weather. They offer local cranberries, beers, cheeses, and eggs. Rose 32 offers a table at most of the areas farmer’s markets, but if you don’t go to the market early, there won’t be anything left. It’s that good.
Artists ~ Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
Perhaps fifteen years ago, I did attend a performance of Jay & Molly’s at a Baptist Church in Watertown MA. I remember being well entertained and enjoying the evening. At that show, was Ruth Ungar, Jay’s daughter, she almost stole the show with her heart tearing performance of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams. To say that she has a voice that could indeed raise the roof is putting it mildly. Ruth Ungar has remarkable range and a rich, soft, powerful delivery. How I say powerful and soft in one line seems contradictory, however she conveys the best of feminine grace and softness with power. I had the good fortune to see Ruth Ungar, now performing as Mike + Ruthy, at this same location about a year ago. The review is located on this blog.
Jay & Molly are traditional acoustic folk musicians. They have been performing together since the late 1970s. Jay is most known for the composition “Ashokan Farewell”, made famous as the opening theme to the PBS TV Series The Civil War by Ken Burns. They have performed around this United States and have appeared on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor.
American Acoustic Folk Music
This music is uniquely American and came from the musical expression of the original colonists who settled here from the Celtic areas of Western Europe. The people came from Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany and France. The settlers that moved further inland to the Appalachian Mountains and territories of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, crafted a unique musical genre. Largely, acoustic music relies on string instruments and the human voice to convey the composition. The majority of compositions were not written down. This is an oral tradition and open to innovation by the artist. The commonly played instruments are harmonica, fiddle, banjo, and guitar. The modern percussion instrument sometimes is the piano. But, instruments would have been brought over from Europe or homemade at the time these areas where settled. A piano would have been last on the list of portable instruments. Mike Merenda of Mike + Ruthy gives percussion with a foot stomp that comes in during songs at just the right moment.
The term fiddle is used instead of violin to identify the style of music played. A fiddler is associated with folk, country or acoustic music and may have been self-taught or lack formal training. A violinist may have been taught to play through a conservatory of music. The violinist plays classical music. Either player can compose for the instrument. Jay Ungar is a fiddler and does not rely on amplification of any kind to create the music. In fact, he made an artistic statement twice during the show by stepping away from the microphone to play relying on the acoustics of the theater to carry the composition. The most commonly known American Acoustic Folk Musical Composition might be the Tennessee Waltz.
Show ~ December 5, 2014
Jay and Molly are first superb musicians of fiddle, mandolin, guitar and piano. Jay has a confident, foot sure presence on the stage. He stands relaxed and straight with not a lot of movement in the body. He held the fiddle in a stance that gave all the energy and focus to the instrument. Indeed, the fiddle more rested on his left shoulder and upper arm rather than held away in a traditional violinist posture. His voice is dry and comforting to the ear. Actually Jay is approaching 70 years old and is perhaps giving his energy where it is most wanted now. Molly looked well and played strong. Several of her compositions were played including “Snowstorm”. They are a duo and complement each of their strengths. Their energy was comforting rather than energetic. They have been performing together for 40 years.
The music was a variety of waltz, airs, laments and dance compositions. The majority of the presentation was instrumental with the fiddle the third partner on the stage. Of course, there is no life to the instrument until the musician plays it, however, the sound and strength of the strings dominated the evening. Music creates a magnificent vibration in the body and affects all the senses. The fiddle was so powerful a voice that it taped into what I call my sixth empathic sense and opened up a different way of being in the present moment. In fact, during the playing of Bonaparte’s Retreat, I got a name: Fire. If the wood and string took on earthly life, it spoke and called itself Fire. Again, during the playing of several waltzes later in the show, I came out the name: Constancy. Jay did use two separate fiddles. I am not that adept at being able to discern one instrument from the next. But, after years of love and care, perhaps the fiddles did take on their own personae and came alive as extensions of Jay’s personality. The way he held the fiddles was more as if he was carrying the instrument. As he teaches quite a bit at The Ashokan Center, perhaps it is more a child now. The other great love in his life.
Jay introduced his “Ashokan Farewell” as a Scottish Lament played by a Jewish guy from the Bronx. He played this piece by stepping away from the microphone, coming to the center stage and letting the well-built Abby Theater carry the music out in the folk acoustic tradition. Everything stopped, the audience quieted and in complete silence, the composition came forth. Jay Ungar has crafted a masterpiece which is so singularly soulful and expressive, that I do believe he has given himself immortality. As all things pass, I speculate that in 50 years, this piece will be played on in remembrance. Very few composers rise to this level of accomplishment. The “Ashokan Farewell”, in my estimation, is that brilliant. Perhaps he has played this piece a 1,000 times by now, no matter, it was as well presented as the first time.
As I prepared to exit the theater at the end of the night, I was surprised to find Jay and Molly at the front desk autographing their CD’s. I happily fell in line and spotted the CD pictured here for sale. As I mentioned earlier, I had seen their daughter Ruthy (Ungar) and her husband Mike (Merenda), perform at this same theater in January. The faces on this CD are all of them in the order of Ruthy, Jay, Molly and Mike. When it was my turn to say hello, I mentioned having seen them years ago in Watertown. Molly had recollection of the stone structure of the Baptist Church. I was touched they could recall the night at all. Jay’s handshake was soft and warm. Molly’s was firm and cool. A blessing it was to touch the hands of these fine musicians. I went out into a messy, cold, slushy, rainy December night in Hardwick. I got home just fine and considered the rare privilege it had been to attend a performance by two of the finest American Acoustic Folk Artists of our Time. Jay and Molly.
Partial Play List ~ Readers can click on the highlighted song to hear the music.
Fiddlin’ Around This Town
A Rovin’ on a Winter’s Night
Love of My Life
Take Me Back to Old Yahzoo
Vladimir Steamboat/Wizards Walk
Midnight on the Water
San Antonio Rose
Written by Frances Ann Wychorski