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Orchestral Bluegrass

Orchestral Bluegrass

Thrilling. Once in a lifetime. Totally exhilarating. That’s a sample of reactions from NC State Department of Music orchestra students (and their professor, Dr. Peter Askim) in response to a transformative experience in October 2019.

The International Bluegrass Music Association was in town for the annual World of Bluegrass festival. North Carolina’s Balsam Range, 2018 IBMA Entertainer of the Year, was scheduled to play for both the annual awards ceremony in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, and in Red Hat Amphitheater the next night. Balsam Range has a history of performing with orchestral musicians (the Atlanta Pops Orchestra). And their bassist Tim Surrett (2015 and 2018 IBMA Bass Player of the Year) happens to know a local guy respected for his guitar picking skills, NC State’s chancellor Randy Woodson.

Thirteen NC State orchestra students – led by Askim, NC State’s director of orchestral studies – were invited to perform for both events. It was spectacular. Violinist Caroline Branan, a sophomore double major in marine sciences and biological sciences (with a minor in music) especially loved the outdoor performance at Red Hat, noting that “Standing in front of 6,000 plus people and playing with a bluegrass band was a rush of adrenaline that I could only experience once in a lifetime.”

The NC State student-musicians got to play for huge audiences in both Memorial Auditorium and Red Hat. Bryant Cox, a senior in applied mathematics and statistics (with a minor in economics) plays cello in both NC State orchestras, the Raleigh Civic Symphony and the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra. Also thrilled by the experience, Cox says that “While it was not my first time playing something other than classical music, it was the first time I had played in front of such large, cheering crowds.”

Askim adds, “It was an incredible opportunity for our students to play with such virtuoso musicians as Balsam Range. They were pushed to master a new style and a new way of thinking about rhythm, feel and energy with just a few rehearsals. From the very first notes Balsam Range played, the students were transported to another level of music making.”

This article was originally published in the spring 2020 issue of #creativestate, the official magazine of Arts NC State.