Folk Arts Quartet
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Folk Arts Quartet

Boston, Massachusetts, United States

Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Band Folk Acoustic


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"A Fiddle In The Palace: High And Low Jam In ‘Chambergrass’"

BOSTON — On Thursday night, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hosts a concert of chamber music performed by four young, highly skilled string players. But the Folk Arts Quartet might just incite something kind of radical in a classical setting: foot-stomping, possibly thigh-slapping, or even dancing!

The ornate Tapestry Room at the Gardner is the typical, intimate backdrop for chamber music, a classical music form historically performed in palace chambers. The Folk Arts Quartet’s instruments — two violins, a viola and a cello — are typical, too.

But the group’s music is not.

“We’re set up like a classical quartet,” explained 27-year-old Folk Arts Quartet co-founder Ivonne Hernandez, “but we play fiddle music. Arranged fiddle music.”

At a rehearsal this week, Hernandez talked about creating the Folk Arts Quartet, or FAQ, with Liz Davis Maxfield less than a year ago.

At the time, they were at Berklee College of Music, studying traditional Scottish, Irish, Celtic and American folk forms.

Davis Maxfield, now 23, plays the cello. “I’ve always really loved the groove and the soul of traditional music, but on the other hand the complexity and the beautiful part writing of chamber music,” Davis Maxfield said.

The same goes for Hernandez. So the two musicians forged a middle ground — or sub-genre.

“We like to call it Chambergrass,” the young cellist said, with a smile.

The name “Chambergrass” sounds fun, but mashing together two extremely different genres isn’t easy. In fact, it almost seems counter-intuitive. But the result is surprising, passionate and more than lovely.

All of the FAQ members are steeped in fiddling and studied classical music seriously as kids. Hernandez grew up in Victoria, British Columbia and she spent grueling hours learning precision and structure via great composers like Beethoven and Bach.

But then Hernandez recalled hearing her neighbor playing the fiddle on his front porch. She was taken by the music, and eventually learned traditional techniques from him. At that point, she could compliment her more reserved classical training with jamming.

“I’d go to sessions, and fiddle playing is, you know, dirty,” she said, laughing.

Hernandez likes loose and improvisational. It’s the the opposite of classical chamber music, which most always relies heavily on sticking with sheet music. Regardless, Hernandez managed to move with relative ease between both worlds.

But it hasn’t been quite as easy for cellist Davis Maxfield. Last year, she was on a Fulbright Fellowship to explore traditional Irish music with her cello.

She said she would lug her instrument’s bulky case to jam sessions at crowded pubs. The amazing, gritty musicians there weren’t sure what to make of her refined instrument, but they managed to get along.

“It’s really fun to play along with fiddlers who are steeped in the Irish tradition and who are very set in their ways of this is an Irish instrument and that isn’t.” But then Davis Maxfield found, “they tend to really love the cello because I think it has the same vibe as the fiddle.”

People in America can be confused by Chambergrass, too, according to Hernandez. She books FAQ’s concerts and says it can be hard to explain.

“They either relate to it as, oh, a classical quartet, or a fiddle group,” the fiddler said, but rarely both.

Matt Glaser, the artistic director of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee, isn’t surprised.

“The good news is that they don’t suffer from comparison to anything else,” he said, “because there’s never been anything else like this.”

Glaser has known the FAQ since its inception, and says Chambergrass is indeed a new genre. While it’s been a success in the hands of the four dedicated, young musicians, Glaser believes the fusion was inevitable. Today’s generation of musicians, he said, are freer to ignore boundaries between styles.

“I’m an old geezer, I would have never thought to do this,” the fiddler admitted, “like, let’s have a string quartet play folk music. You know they’re younger, they live in a world where everything is possible, and they have immediate access to all of these different musical styles, and they hear it all being played at a very high level technically. So all I can do is sit back in my rocker and cluck my tongue in wonderment.”

But, as one of the newer members of the group sees it, there are still significant boundaries to push. Twenty-one-year-old Lea Kirstein plays the viola.

“I heard once that fiddle music is the kind of music that comes up through the feet and classical music is the kind of music that stems from the intellect and goes down. And I think in this group it’s the best possible way to explore both of those things,” she said.

The Folk Arts Quartet performs Thursday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. - Boston's NPR Station

"Folk Arts Quartet"

We’ve commented a number of times about the fertile acoustic string music scene in and around Boston, MA. It is fueled in large part by the number of prestigious and highly selective music schools in the area, and a willingness on the part of young musicians there to try some new things.

One interesting new group to emerge from this primordial ooze is Folk Arts Quartet, a group that mixes elements of bluegrass, old time, Celtic and Canadian fiddle music into the traditional string quartet format. Their self-titled CD has just been released and they are getting very positive feedback for their live performances.

Folk Arts Quartet was formed by four young women who met while studying at the Berklee College of Music, where the string department faculty took an interest in the group and provided mentoring and coaching as their sound and repertoire were being developed. The music on their CD is drawn from traditional fiddle music in a number of styles, plus original compositions from the quartet’s members, in a m?©lange they call Chambergrass.

The current group consists of Ivonne Hernadez and Hannah Read on violin, Julie Metcalf on viola and Emma Beaton on cello. All have quite an impressive list of accomplishments for such young musicians, including solo CDs and competition wins to their credit.

The original group included Liz Davis Maxfield on cello, who is featured on the CD. Liz has just graduated from Berklee (as have Hernandez and Metcalf), and she has accepted a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Ireland for a year.

Beaton also performs with Joy Kills Sorrow, a young Boston-based progressive bluegrass band which highlights Emma’s voice and the several band members’ original material.

Here’s a taste of the music from the Folk Arts Quartet CD, a medley they call For the Boys, which includes Cold Fish, Eric’s and Cincinnati.

For The Boys - Listen now: (See URL of article for Audio/Visual Samples)

They perform with a far more relaxed persona than is typical for a string quartet, as this YouTube video from Folk Alliance ’09 in Memphis demonstrates: (See URL of article for Audio/Visual Samples)

Hat’s off to FAQ for their creative attitude, and to Berklee for fostering the development of new avenues for traditional fiddle music. - The Bluegrass Blog

"Berklee's Folk Arts Quartet to play ''Chambergrass'' at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival"

The Folk Arts Quartet (FAQ)—a flagship ensemble from Boston's Berklee College of Music—perform a style they like to call "Chambergrass": raw, grooving fiddle music played with the grace and sophistication of a classical string quartet. Hear them live at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, July 23–24, at Dodds Farm, in Hillsdale, New York. For full schedule and ticket information, visit:

The four young women comprising the FAQ include perennial Canadian fiddle champ Ivonne Hernandez; cellist and 2009 Fulbright scholar Liz Davis Maxfield; violist Julie Metcalf; and violinist Hannah Read. The band's unique sound is shaped by the fact that its members hail from Scotland, Canada, and eastern and western United States. Collectively, they've studied with renowned string musicians Matt Glaser, Natalie Haas, Eugene Friesen, John McGann, and others.

Liz Davis Maxfield, cello
From Orem, Utah, Liz Davis Maxfield, a cellist as early as 5, grew up performing in her family's touring folk band, Fiddlesticks. From early on, she developed a love for playing and composing cello music, whether it be classical, folk, jazz, or other styles. After attending Brigham Young University as a classical cello performance major, Maxfield transferred to Berklee to study cello folk music. She has 10 CDs to her credit, many of which she composed the music for. Her newest release is titled Big Fiddle. This year, Maxfield was awarded the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student scholarship to study for a year in Ireland. She is the first cellist ever accepted to the University of Limerick's Irish Traditional Music Performance masters program. During her stay, she will write and publish a method book on adapting Irish fiddle and guitar styles for the cello, a groundbreaking concept since the cello is so rare in the world of Irish traditional music.

Julie Metcalf, viola
Julie Metcalf, from Worcester, MA, grew up in a family of musicians who encouraged her to make music at an early age. At first she specialized in classical violin, which she'd go on to study at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, but soon she'd discover a passion for folk, jazz, Celtic, Latin, and other contemporary styles. In May, 2009, Metcalf graduated with a degree in violin performance from Berklee College of Music, where she had been attending on scholarship.

Hannah Read, violin
Endinburgh, Scotland, native Hannah Read is a fiddler and vocalist whose style blends Scottish folk, with jazz, soul, and world music. At 11, she enrolled at the City of Edinburgh Music School to study fiddle, classical violin, piano, and voice. While still in school, she performed at Scotland's Usher Hall (for the Dalai Lama), Edinburgh Castle, Murrayfield Stadium, and at the Isle of Eigg’s 10th Anniversary Ceilidh (Independence Day). At 18, she moved to Paris to study jazz vocals at the American School of Modern Music. The following year, she was commissioned to compose the music for the Rowan Tree Theatre Company’s annual production, the Journey of Jeannie Deans — the play was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In 2007, she enrolled at Berklee where she is currently studying fiddle. Read has appeared onstage with Celine Dion, The Treacherous Orchestra (a collective of renowned Scottish musicians), Crooked Still, Maeve Gilchrist, Ewan Macpherson, and others.

The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival is held at Dodds Farm, in Hillsdale, New York, at the Tri-State Corner of Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut. Festival attendance in past years has approached as much as 15,000. Though musical acts and styles generally vary in scope from older folk artists such as Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, and Janis Ian to up-and-coming acts from the fringes of folk and other genres from bluegrass (Crooked Still) to polka (Brave Combo), the dominant style of music at the festival is folk-pop. Past festivals have included such artists as Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, and Ani DiFranco. For the full schedule and ticket information, visit: - Cybergrass

"Berklee Bluegrass and The Folk Arts Quartet: Notes from the fore of the Boston folk and bluegrass scene"

Someone’s doing something right at the Berklee College of Music. As a gathering place for talented musicians steeped in a variety of traditions, it has long held a reputation both a natural source for emerging artists and a hotbed of hybridization. You may not have realized it, but the odds are excellent that at least some of your own favorite artists attended the prestigious school, from Patty Larkin, Gillian Welch, Bruce Cockburn and Susan Tedeschi to Melissa Etheridge, Bill Frisell, Donald Fagin, Juliana Hatfield, Aimee Mann and John Mayer.

But continued development of programs in songwriting and guitar, and a new focus on bluegrass in the past several years, have accelerated Berklee’s impact on the folk and bluegrass worlds, especially in and around the Boston area. Cellist and singer-songwriter Lindsay Mac, who we featured here last year as a winner of the 2007 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival’s emerging artist showcase, is an alum; this year’s celebrated set of audience-selected showcase winners from 2008 included Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers, several of whose members have recently graduated from the school as well. And jazz-influenced up-and-comer Emily Elbert, who competed in this year’s emerging artist showcase for a spot in next year’s festival and has just come off a tour with G Love and Special Sauce, is currently at Berklee focusing on songwriting and voice, as is talented vocalist Ali Rapetti, aka Bedside Companion, who accompanied Emily.

And Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, which last year included both the Infamous Stringdusters and Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet — both of which feature Berklee alumni — this year featured several acts associated with the college, from professor and master mandolinist John McGann, who sat in with Del McCoury, to previously-noted band The Boston Boys, who formed as students in the school, to fiddler Casey Driessen of the Sparrow Quartet, to Crooked Still, who picked up their original cellist Rushad Eggleston from there, to one of Berklee’s newest members, 16 year old mandolin wunderkind Sierra Hull, who will start the program in the fall.

The Folk Arts Quartet, who played two sets at Falcon Ridge 2009, are just one of the up-and-coming bands who have emerged from Berklee in the past year which both straddle and transcend the line between folk and bluegrass. International in origin and flavor — their members come from three countries, and carry Scottish, Cape Breton, and classical traditions into their performance — the quartet performs a style they call chambergrass, a high-energy fusion of multiple influences which works so well that no less an authority than the musical director of Falcon Ridge herself touted FAQ as one of her favorite bands to watch this year.

Thanks to an encounter with fiddler Hannah Read on Thursday, I had a chance to sit down with the four ladies of the FAQ behind the Falcon Ridge workshop stage on Friday morning, and much of our conversation revolved around the presence of Berklee as an intersection point or node for their artistic and musical cross-pollination. Their unique combination of jazz, celtic, bluegrass and folk elements which so wowed the Falcon Ridge crowds this year came as a result of jamming together in a Berklee classroom; though current cellist Liz Davis Maxfield will be leaving the group for a year abroad studying Irish traditional music, she will be replaced by CLD fave Emma Beaton, herself a student at Berklee.

The collaborative creative process which is so evident in their performance, especially on their self-titled debut CD, is a result of equal contribution from all group members; Read and fellow fiddler Julie Metcalf trade off on lead and harmony throughout, and the women work together on writing and bringing songs to the group for composition, arrangement, practice and performance, which speaks to both the strength of Berklee’s program and those it attracts and nurtures. And Berklee has been highly supportive of the group, bringing them onstage for commencement to perform their own Cape Breton-style arrangements of songs by honorary degree recipients Linda Rondstadt and Smokey Robinson; award-winning fiddler and foot percussionist Ivonne Hernandez, one of the group’s founding members, was also featured as a notable graduate in the ceremony’s press release.

Here’s a few artist-approved video covers from the Folk Arts Quartet, taken by yours truly at this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Fest…plus a studio version of Waterlily from the Folk Arts Quartet’s incredible and highly recommended self-titled debut album, a few bonus covers featuring new and founding members on vocals, and a pair of great covers from other Berklee bluegrass artists spotted at Grey Fox and Falcon Ridge over the past few weeks.

Of course, there are other reasons why Boston has long been a hotbed of folk and traditional music: its Irish population, seminal folk clubs and coffeehouses such as Club Passim and house concerts such as the Notlob series, long-standing traditions of and areas for busking. The high concentration of colleges which bring young people into the area as fans and members of the talent pool are a strong factor as well: the New England Conservatory, for example, just down the street from Berklee, nurtured the talents of Aoife O’Donovan of Crooked Still, and Sarah Jarosz, who we featured in April, will attend the school this fall.

Those interested in watching the local scene are especially encouraged to keep an eye on other festivals coming up in and around Boston, including ICONS this fall, and both the BCMFest and the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival this winter. And if you’re in Cambridge and have a chance to attend, I highly recommend attending Sub Rosa, a semi-regular in-the-round Lizard Lounge residency hosted by Cover Lay Down favorite Rose Polenzani, featuring Alastair Moock, Catie Curtis, Jennifer Kimball, Aoife O’Donovan, Anne Heaton, and a dozen or more other young players and songwriters from the Boston area, many of whom will be performing at the Boston Folk Festival on September 13th.

Polenzani recently posted the full soundboard recordings from a recent Sub Rosa, which includes some lovely covers and originals; you can pick up the full set from her blog, but here’s a pair of Rose’s own performances from that set, plus yet another installment in Rose’s ongoing collection of YouTube cover tunes: an absolutely gorgeous video of Polenzani, Heaton, Rose Cousins, and Laura Cortese covering Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney duet Say Say Say.
- Cover Lay Down


Folk Arts Quartet (2009)



Folk Arts Quartet (FAQ) fuses the worlds of folk and chamber music in a wild amalgam they call ChamberGrass. With firm roots in Celtic and American fiddle styles, FAQ enlivens traditional tunes and new compositions through innovative arrangements, recordings, and performances.

“It’s not uncommon for a modern string quartet to play some crossover material,” remarks cellist Liz Davis Maxfield, “but what we’re doing is different. We aren’t a classical quartet playing ‘an arrangement of a folk tunes.’ We are fundamentally folk musicians, who know the traditions and styles, but we also happen to have extensive technical training and chamber music experience.”

The founding members of Folk Arts Quartet met in 2008 while studying at Berklee College of Music (Boston, MA), piloting their groovy, contemporary arrangements in Boston’s fertile folk music scene. At Berklee, FAQ had the honor of being mentored by some of today’s best contemporary string players, including Eugene Friesen, Mads Tolling, and John McGann. FAQ’s sound quickly grew in popularity as the quartet performed for audiences at venues such as Club Passim and WGBH’s St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn.

“Evidently passionate and extremely tight, it was an absolute delight to see them perform,” wrote Anja McCloskey, writer for Wears the Trousers Magazine.

Scots Trad Music Award winner and FAQ mentor, Natalie Haas, said “The Folk Arts Quartet is comprised of four incredibly talented young [musicians], each bringing her own unique style of fiddling to this group, which is the first of its kind in the Celtic genre. They are taking the string world by storm with their zesty arrangements of both traditional and original tunes, blending the raw, folksy sounds of a string band with the sophistication and grace of a classical string quartet.”

In March 2009, FAQ released its debut, self-titled album prior to spending the summer touring throughout the U.S. and Canada. In response to FAQ’s performance on the main stage of Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, the Festival’s musical director touted FAQ as one of her “favorite bands to watch this year.” (Cover Lay Down, 8/09)

In late 2009 FAQ “hibernated” while Liz accepted a Fulbright grant to pursue a year-long study and research program at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance (University of Limerick, Ireland). Meanwhile, others of the founding members also pursued other musical projects.

In summer 2010, FAQ returns to the scene with a new lineup—welcoming Jenna Moynihan and Lea Kirstein—and tours in New England, New York, Philadelphia, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia.