Fire & Grace had a stunning return to Oberlin on Wednesday night, February 15, in Fairchild Chapel. The duo consists of guitarist William Coulter and Oberlin Conservatory’s baroque violin professor Edwin Huizinga. They combine folk music and classical, blending the two into a unified piece of art that they embody with absolute energy and enthusiasm.
The Fairchild program covered American “newgrass,” Spanish songs, Argentine tango, and Italian and German baroque. Despite the seemingly ambitious span of genre, the performance was engaging from start to finish. The transitions between songs, speeches, and styles felt so natural it was occasionally difficult to pinpoint exactly when the duo switched from folk to baroque.
Huizinga and Coulter’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s “Libertango” and “Oblivion” opened the concert with a familiar and exciting bang. Albeniz’s “Asturias” was lively and the influence from JS Bach was evident in the division of melody and harmony. “Asturias” is a guitar standard that Coulter first heard at the same concert that introduced him to classical guitar. Coulter has wanted to play the Albeniz since attending that performance as a teenager, and he played with a fervor that made his love for the music obvious.
“Vivaldi was the pop music of the time,” Huizinga said, introducing their wild arrangement of “Summer” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Although written for solo violin and orchestral accompaniment, the guitar and violin version holds true to the original’s spirit—feverish July days of youth in the first and third movements and peaceful June days in the adagio e piano. Percussive strums of the guitar and fast bow strokes in the violin held the rhythm. It was an animated reimagining of a classic, and the audience liked it a lot.
In January, Huizinga taught a class on baroque and folk music from around the world and first year jazz bassist Will Scheer stood out. Fire & Grace brought him on stage for Paul Kowert’s ‘newgrass’ 2018 piece “Unless.” The music was surprisingly American — Appalacchian-adjacent glides and a campfire atmosphere — in contrast to the prior repertoire, and it brought a peaceful sway to the room. The trio danced together, and each ensured the others’ solos were appreciated by the audience, though there was no need as the audience happily cheered for each modern bluegrass twist.
The entirety of the second half was devoted to Suite Español, a Fire & Grace creation that alternates between the first Bach solo cello suite and Spanish and Latin American songs. While this combination may appear at first glance to be a risky blurring of boundaries, the duo reminded us that genre is subjective, and you can (and perhaps should) find commonality between art and people no matter their origin.
To supplement a dramatic decrescendo they turned away from the listeners in unison, letting their sound echo against the stone and metal apse of Fairchild, rather than projecting directly to the audience. This made their return to the vibrant forte of the minuets and the gigue even more exciting as they slowly spun back towards the audience. They subverted expectations of music and movement and in doing so they began to break down the perceived barriers between folk and baroque.
Fire & Grace gave a fantastic performance, and Oberlin is lucky to have access to music and musicians who push boundaries. Hopefully we will see more from this duo in the future, but for now Alma, containing Suite Español and more, is out for listening!
Alma can be listened to here: https://music.apple.com/ca/album/alma/1590265334