New Classical Tracks: Finding the Soul of the Fiddle... or Is It a Violin?

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
August 17, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — Kevin Burke is one of the best Irish fiddlers around. He's been part of traditional Irish groups like The Bothy Band and Patrick Street. His love of music started with a very special music teacher named Jessie Christopherson, who lived within walking distance of his house in Southeast London. From this harsh, somewhat intimidating teacher, he learned how to play classical violin. Even more importantly, however, he learned that classical people can be broadminded when it comes to other kinds of music.

Burke was curious why his style of playing sounded so different from the Irish music recordings he was hearing at home. It was his teacher who explained that not everything they were hearing was actually written on the page. She also told Burke that great fiddlers have to find the soul of their instrument. That became his quest.

For years, Kevin Burke has been treating the printed page simply as a guide, adding grace notes and triplets at will to create the twists and turns needed in true Irish fiddling. After a chance conversation with guitarist Cal Scott, Burke discovered they had both been pondering the idea of blending traditional and classical music. From that conversation, "The Irish Session Suite" was born. The suite is made up of ten traditional tunes, arranged by Cal Scott, in four movements for string quartet.

So what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin? The old joke goes that when you're looking to buy one, it's a fiddl, but when you're looking to sell one, it's a violin. The primary difference really is stylistic. Fiddling uses a bowing style that's more rhythmic with limited vibrato, which we hear right away in the four fanciful jigs that open the first movement of "The Irish Session Suite. "

A pulsating guitar bass line opens the hornpipe of the second movement. Using a rougher tone, Kevin Burke digs into the melody, ornamenting a few choice notes along the way.

While the first two movements have a distinctive Irish folk feel, the third movement has a more traditional string quartet sound. As the lead violin plays the lyrical melody, the remaining string players provide pizzicato accompaniment. Later in the movement, each string instrument pulls away with its own gorgeous response to the melody.

Four reels close out the "Irish Session Suite," a fine example of the tunes that might be heard wherever Irish musicians may gather. This jam session is full of fun foot-stomping dance music, with each performer remaining focused on the quality of their technique and the overall performance.

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