. . . and fill in the gaps with their own compositions
You know from the opening seconds that something unexpected is about to happen. That low trill on the viola leading to a smooth upward glissando and an exceptionally familiar theme—isn’t that supposed to be a clarinet? Yes, if you’re listening to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Ah, but this is “Rhapsody in Bluegrass.”
That iconic intro is performed by Alex Wolaver. Then his siblings—Annie and Gretchen on violins, Benjamin on cello, Camille on piano, and Jeremiah rocking the electric guitar—come in, powered by a rhythm section through a labyrinth of changes. Drums charge into a thundering gallop; quotes from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” pop up; Gretchen picks up a mandolin to kick off a hoedown; the well-known piano figure at the finale gives way to the strings emulating a train whistle.
Could this be anyone but the Annie Moses Band?
Since debuting as a preternaturally gifted group of Juilliard-trained prodigies, these siblings have cultivated an appeal based on combining world-class technique, occasional bursts of humor, a bit of sentimentality, and a flair for compelling live performances. Still young, they’ve matured collectively and individually.
They’ve begun to challenge themselves conceptually. And with their newest album, that challenge is met emphatically.
Released on the Warner Classics label, American Rhapsody is nothing less than an attempt to celebrate America’s tapestry of folk traditions. A dynamically nuanced treatment of “Shenandoah,” a well-crafted, blazing reduction of Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown,” sensitive orchestrations of texts by Longfellow (“Psalm Of Life”) and Bob Dylan (“Hard Times Come Again No More”), and original compositions that embrace both Native America and the lure of the untamed West—this music reaches fearlessly for myriad horizons and gathers them under a single thematic umbrella.
That fearlessness manifests especially in the group’s decision to create new material as a complement to songs well-embedded in the national oeuvre. “When we started doing curation for this project, we found that there are pockets of America where the wells are very deep,” Annie explains one morning as most of the Wolavers convene in a Nashville coffeehouse. “But once you get to the West, there is almost no music that’s indigenous to the place.”
“You have hoedowns and Marty Robbins,” Gretchen interjects, prompting laughter at the table and curiosity from nearby laptop and iPad gazers. “So,” Annie continues, “Alex wrote ‘West, Pioneer!’ because he wanted a kind of opus for what the West was like.”
That piece begins with low tremolo on the tonic. The viola outlines a spacious, plaintive motif, soon harmonized by violin. A Hammond organ leads to a stirring anthem in 5/4, driven by drums and punctuated by urgent vocal harmonies. Declarations to “blaze a new trail to the West’s setting sun” and “conquer the Rockies” just may inspire audiences to rush out and hop aboard the next Conestoga wagon.
Alternatively, another original composition, “Grass on the Prairie,” is a reverie inspired by a stop on the group’s concert tour a few years back. “We were in southern Wyoming or maybe northern Utah,” Annie says. “We parked our car at about 5 o’clock on this empty highway and just watched the grass. You realize that to the settlers this grass was like an ocean, beautiful and dazzling.”
“It was sunset, too, so you had this silver-golden light,” adds Jeremiah.
“It was the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen,” Annie recalls. “But there isn’t any folk music that describes that. All we’ve got comes from The Magnificent Seven and Gunsmoke and all these things that have become part of our subconscious. So a lot of our writing on American Rhapsody comes from trying to fill those gaps.”
“Until the trains came out there, the only music you could get was something you could play with a guitar or a mandolin or whatever,” Ben says. “If you lived in Texas in the mid-1800s, you didn’t know what an orchestra was. So what you found from that area is basically variations on folk music.”
“It would have been one lone person who had something passed down to them, almost like an oral tradition,” Annie says.
“What I’m wondering about is, what did you do if you broke a string?” Ben wonders.
While some questions necessarily remain unanswered, the Annie Moses Band had no hesitation in tackling others, such as how to take beloved, large-scale compositions, break them down to more intimate instrumentation, and find the right balance between honoring and reinterpreting the original.
“It’s about getting creative with some of the extra elements we have,” Alex says.
“‘Hoedown’ was in some ways easier because the strings are so prominent and we can cover those parts,” Annie adds.
“Plus we’re doing some wind parts,” Alex notes. “And for the marimba that Copland had in his orchestration, we had Camille play the Hammond B-3 with all the drawbars pushed in, so all you heard was the percussion attack.”
“‘Rhapsody in Bluegrass’ was probably the hardest one to put together,” Ben suggests as the others nod. “I remember a quote from the director of The Untouchables; he said he felt less bound to the actual history of Al Capone and Eliot Ness and more to their legend. In a way, we were more bound to the legend than to the letter of ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’”
“The easiest part was to ‘bluegrass-ify’ the melody,” Annie says. “We wanted to take the type of fiddle shuffle you would hear in a song like ‘Cotton-Eyed Joe,’ where the fiddler is basically creating a backbeat.
“We wanted to combine that bowing pattern with the core melody. Then when you put this train shuffle under it, all of a sudden you have this sound that’s so different from the traditional ‘Rhapsody’ yet it’s totally in the pocket of what Gershwin wanted the piece to be. It actually worked out shockingly well,” Gretchen says, echoing the ambitions and accomplishments of her family band.
A Conversation with the Annie Moses Band about What They Play
Alex: I play a Marten Cornelissen viola. It was made in 1999. A commission had actually fallen through and I got it. It’s a 16 1/2-inch instrument. I play a combination of Larsen and Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore strings. I have a modern bow—I can’t remember the name of the guy who made it.
Annie: I play an old Italian violin from the 1850s by somebody who wanted to rip off Ceruti.
Alex: Some evaluators say it’s authentic and others do not.
Annie: I don’t really concentrate on strings. One day I’ll make enough money to have a bow worth owning. Today is not that day.
Ben: I have a William Harris Lee cello, year 2000. It started out as a good little cello and then it turned into a pretty great cello as I played it and had a lot of work done on it. In terms of strings, I recently shifted to Larsen Soloists on top with Larsen’s new Magnacore on the bottom because it’s not as tinny. Larsens tend to start out being very resonant immediately. I have a very heavy-tipped bow, which is unusual. Most cello bows I’ve played are pretty light at the tip. A lot of cellists probably want a lighter bow but I think they work too hard because that heavy tip really helps me out. I don’t even think about it anymore.
Gretchen: I play violin, mandolin, and guitar. I can’t remember! I know it!
Annie: It’s a prewar Juzek.
Gretchen: We got pretty extensive work done on it. There was a big scar added to it later on, but we got it removed. I can’t remember the bow.
Story update: Annie Moses Band plans to release a 2016 recording The Art of the Love Song, a collection of classic ballads arranged by the band, including “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Let’s Stay Together,” and “La Vie en Rose.” The band was backed by a full orchestra during the live recording at the Grand Ole Opry. The show will be broadcast in March on PBS during its pledge drive, and will be available on CD, DVD, and Blu-ray.