Tackling Turceasca

Years ago, I'm sitting in a car with a group of people, headingsomewhere - a music festival? A bassist is driving the car, I think. We are having a great time listening to Bela Fleck when the driver decides that it is time to turn things up a notch.

"Listen to this," he says, puts in a Kronos Quartet CD, and punches a track number.

Fistfuls of notes start bouncing around the car at lightning speed, followed by one of the most stunningly "alive" melodies I've encountered. Paired with an amazing groove in the rhythm section, which must have included one certifiably insane dulcimer player, this song takes off like nothing I'd ever heard. I love to exaggerate, but that statement is 100 percent bona fide - and the energy created by this CD track is wild, whirling, and totally wonderful. Perhaps that's why I neglect to catch its name at the time.

Fast-forward a good bit and suddenly it's 2008 and one of the other Criers is mentioning to me that there's this great tune out there that Jesse got to know during a Silk Road workshop at Carnegie. The thought is to ask someone named - who was it? - Zhurbin - if he'd be willing to make us an arrangement.

"Wait a second," I say - "Lev Zhurbin? You mean, Ljova?"

And suddenly, things are rewinding again, back to my first moments in the now-long-silent Wild Ginger Philharmonic, playing in a viola section led by a guy named Lev who seems too have much energy for any single musical phrase, who seems to want to play them all at once... followed by stints out in front of New York restaurants with my new friend, improv-ing fiddle-style on two violas... and moments like the one in that Village place where the performer we had come to hear was late - so Ljova borrowed my viola, strolled on stage, and proceeded to steal the show by improvising out of thin air until the other musicians arrived... followed by my then-bemusement as this inspiring musician busted out of Juilliard and the status quo, left it all behind, and started doing things his own way for good.

I'd tell Lev about rehearsing Brahms, or maybe it was Bruckner or Bartok. How great it was. "Well..." he'd say, "today I wrote a Mexican tune and I think it sounds kinda Mexican."

Anyone who wants to know how this particular story ends only has to glance at Ljova's website, www.ljova.com.

Do it. It's inspiring.

So (the present interjects) before I know it, I'm emailing my old friend to ask about the possibility of arranging this unknown tune with a weird name. I'm happy to be doing it. Even though I have no idea about this music, I trust all the players in this situation absolutely. Jesse wouldn't be excited about this piece unless it was going to rock the proverbial house, and Ljova wouldn't take something like this on without making it shine.

It's 11:30 PM (or is it 12:30?), mid-December, and Lev and his wife Inna (amazing singer-by-night, lawyer-by-day... whew!) and I are at a friend's house in Boston. We're listening to a reedy MIDI playthrough of the Silk Road arrangement of this piece and watching the score pages autoscroll by. Somehow, the pipa line needs to get shared out between the string sections, he says. My tired head nods. "But I can't do it right now - the Latin Grammys are coming up in days."

Well, the Latin Grammys came and went, and one fine day, a gorgeous stack of PDFs of "Turceasca" landed in my inbox.

Curiously, it was just a couple days before that that the Great Revelation had finally struck me. Lev had mentioned that he needed to run the parts by Osvaldo Golijov, because the original arrangement had been the one that Golijov had made for the Kronos Quartet. That moment of wondering "could it be the same piece?" followed by the wonderful shock of recognition left me immensely eager to finally get out there are discover what this nifty, nutty, tune was REALLY all about.

So, I finally started doing my homework! Check this out.

Taraf De Haidouks

Still breathing?

Welcome to the world of the Taraf de Haiidouks, the Romanian gypsy band that lights a fire under everything that they do, and for whom their composition "Turceasca" is their official calling card. There is a wealth of great material from them available on the Internet, especially via YouTube, and I'd especially recommend one fantastic video that shows them making music with an entire village, leading children out of houses Pied-Piper style and trading phrases with the local musicians. I don't know the link, but it's just as well - the seach will be rewarding! Or perhaps Sharon, who showed it to me, will be so kind as to post it...

Also potentially of interest is this link to a great little folk dancing sheet that details precisely what kind of a dance the "turceasca" is - "arms free and active, mostly in front of the body, hands at shoulder level, elbows slightly bent - steps generally small - usually the hips sway with each step touch..."

Here's the whole link:

Dance the Turceasca (pdf link)

(Anyone want to volunteer to lead the dancing tonight?)

In a way, I wish my dear friend Lev Zhurbin was up here to hear the fruits of his labors, not just because it would be great to play Turcaesca for him, but because he could be the one to get people up out of their seats and show them how to enjoy themselves in motion. As proof, I offer you one of the sweetest videos I've ever seen - his wedding procession/dance through the streets of New York City. Old world, New World, different souls, same spirit.

Ljova's Wedding Procession

There's so much to write about this piece, and the weird confluence of different situations and relationships that helped to generate tonight's performance. In a way, it's a metaphor for what we're navigating in the entire program! But I'll let you go now, with one final wacky thought.

When Ljova first sent up the PDFs, he sent a MIDI file of the new arrangement with them. Of course, the sound is horrible and there's no sense of rubato, no energy, no nuthin.' All the same, I've gotten strangely addicted to it. It's great to hear the Taraf de Haiidouks and their effortless virtuosity. It's great to hear the Kronos Quartet sweating away. But there's something weirdly wonderful about listening to this silly midi file, because it leaves all the doors wide open. No decisions have been made, no opinions stamped. Everything is still possible. In its squat package of sound, I feel like I can hear what may happen tonight, what may happen on Sunday, and what may happen at any point in the future.

It's exciting!