Since I’ve been reviewing classical music for the past six years, some people may have the impression that I’m not interested in folk music. It’s true that I find classical music far more complex and sophisticated with oblique windows of autobiographical tragedies and triumphs, yet I have never abandoned the interest I had in folk music when I was a teenager because that was my first love in music. The principal thing about music is that it remains performance, that is, real music must be live, and it must have a sincere emotional core in its presentation, or its not really music. Recordings may be hints, but they are not the real thing.
Last Saturday afternoon Smithfield Church in Amenia hosted Judy Handler and Mark Levesque under the Bang Family umbrella with a program titled “Rhythms of the World.” While this sounded good to me—in literature and religion I am a comparativist all the way—yet I was not sure what to expect. As is traditional in folk music, there was no program and I did not take notes. After the concert, Mark offered me the playlist, yet the playlist had more than twice as many suggestions than what was played because Judy and Mark improvise the program on the spot.
They opened with “Antara,” a gypsy song from The Netherlands; they followed it up with “Honeysuckle Rose” a 1929 song composed by Fats Waller with lyrics by Ethiopian American Andy Razaf who also wrote for Irving Berlin. That combo really got my attention, especially since I’m a Fats Waller Fan who thinks that he should not have drunk at least a gallon a gin every day. I was in awe of Judy’s fingering (string picking) on guitar. Switching to Spanish romance, they played “Alma Corazón y Vida;” the duo galvanized in such unity that they played as if their two instruments were a single instrument. Mark announced they were to play “Greensleeves,” and I wondered if I would fall asleep, but they played their new arrangement, which was magnificent. I even wanted to hear their version again.
Turloch O'Carolan’s tune “Fanny Power” followed. The blind Irish harpist O’Carolan, a good friend of Corelli who invented the concerto, inspired William Butler Yeats to write tragic-love dialogue lyrics to this tune, which The Chieftans once played at a concert but never recorded. The Handler-Levesque playlist had listed “O’Carolan’s Concerto” which was not played, yet they performed a lively Irish hornpipe “Harvest Home,” which is a far more widely known happy tune and most apropos for our current season. They then played “Oh, My Beloved Father,” which is known as a popular folk song with lyrics by Archie Pitt, yet the tune was adapted from “O mio babbino caro,” written by Giacomo Puccini, who had resurrected it from an eighteenth-century mandolin folk tune. Mark extolled the virtues of his modern mandolin as he compared it to earlier Italian mandolins.
The Italian “Calace Tarantella” had my blood racing (as it is designed to do). Moving to Taiwan, Mark illustrated the difference of the European scale in D major to the Chinese scale in D major. “Spring Breeze” described a 17-year-old young woman’s wish to be married, yet freighted the melancholy wistful mood that her wish may not be fulfilled. The higher register of the mandolin supplied poignant emotional thrust, evoking the high-pitched Chinese pipa.
Likewise, “Guarjirita” dramatized the plight of a young white Cuban peasant who wanted to marry. “Malagueña” by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona was originally the sixth movement of Lecuona's Suite Andalucía (1933), to which he added lyrics in Spanish, yet the melody was originally written by 19th century American jazz composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (whose work should enjoy a revival!) in a solo piano composition, "Souvenirs d'Andalousie." This famous piece became a popular hit by Puerto Rican virtuoso guitarist José Feliciano as part of his 1969 Gold record Alive Alive O!
Switching to Middle Eastern music, Mark explained how notes were flattened to give a higher plangent signature. “Los Bilbilicos” and “Meron Nigh” were examples. For finale, Mark joined Judy on her guitar and standing over her in embrace, they together played “Swallows Flying,” a bravura composition of their own describing their love of music.
What made this eclectic concert so wonderful was the incredible unity of their two instruments, which to the ear sounded as a single instrument. They are not academic players—they have played in venues around the globe, performing over 2,000 concerts together throughout the United States & Europe. They are founding members of the New American Mandolin Ensemble, and Judy is Co-Founder of the Connecticut Guitar Society. Their CDs Passion, Acoustic Blend, and Two Guitars Live! have received critical acclaim and are available in dozens of countries throughout the world. Their alternate playlist included Greek, Bulgarian, and much South American music.
They are so accomplished that if you hear them once, you will want to hear them again. But even once in a single performance their precision blend echoes in one’s memory. Their website is athttp://judyandmark.com/. A YouTube video of them performing the famous Russian tune “Dark Eyes” appears below.