RALEIGH — Standing to conductor Grant Llewellyn's left, Laurelyn Dossett listens to the N.C. Symphony tuning up and does the same with her guitar. By way of introduction, Llewellyn addresses the players about the music they're rehearsing.
"This is a beautiful piece about ... a sort of prodigal daughter," Llewellyn begins, then turns to Dossett. "Would you say that's right?"
Dossett nods, and Llewellyn continues. "It's about a prodigal daughter coming home for Thanksgiving."
Then he raises his baton, and they all start to play. The music is beautiful - lilting strings rise and fall, conveying the bittersweet wistfulness of coming home for the holidays. Above the instruments, Dossett sings in a strong, clear voice.
"Young dreams and restless spring
"I left without blessing or grace
"Clipped wings and apron strings
"The ties we can never erase..."
It's from "The Gathering: A Winter's Tale in Six Songs," a holiday-season song cycle that the symphony commissioned to premiere next weekend. Dossett wrote the piece and recorded an album version with stripped-down acoustic arrangements featuring Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens, John Hartford/Elvis Costello sideman Mike Compton and Red Clay Rambler Joe Newberry.
They will be onstage with the symphony at Friday's premiere to perform a fully orchestrated version. While the prospect excites Dossett, it also makes her as anxious as a prodigal daughter headed home for the holidays.
"That was nerve-wracking," she says with a laugh after rehearsal. "It was beautiful to hear, and I was also hearing mandolin and banjo, and the other voices from the album in my head. I can't wait to hear the whole thing for real because..."
Dossett's voice trails off.
"Sorry," she says after a pause. "My brain is in that room still."
Sounds 300 years old
Dossett, 50, has been a player in North Carolina's old-time music circles for about a decade, both solo and with her Triad-based duo Polecat Creek. The past few years have included breakthroughs such as a 2009 guest spot on "A Prairie Home Companion" and an association with Levon Helm, the roots-music demigod best-known for his 1960s stint as drummer/vocalist in the iconic Canadian ensemble The Band. Dossett's connection came about by happy accident. At a New York reading for a play, Helm's producer heard Dossett play "Anna Lee," a stark and epically tragic ballad that sounds like a traditional song from the mists of time. He cornered Dossett during intermission to ask who wrote it.
"I told him I did, and he asked if he could take it to Levon," Dossett recalls. "And that was that."
Helm recorded "Anna Lee" for his album "Dirt Farmer," which won the 2008 Grammy Award for best traditional folk album. Dossett was invited to play at a few of Helm's "Midnight Ramble" shows at his barn in Woodstock, N.Y. - where Helm introduced her as "the lady that wrote that beautiful song that sounds 300 years old."
Dossett has also performed with the N.C. Symphony a few times, enough for management to enlist her to compose a holiday-themed piece, melding her old-time sensibility with classical orchestration. Llewellyn was confident it could work.
"Across genres, coming from the symphonic classical world, I'm endlessly fascinated with how much we as musicians all have in common," Llewellyn says. "Whether or not artists speak the same musical language is sort of irrelevant so long as they're all fine musicians."
Having already done a music-theater piece called "Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity," Dossett didn't want to revisit the theme of Christmas nativity. Holiday homecomings, however, seemed promising.
"There's a melancholia to this time of year, nostalgic memories of past gatherings," Dossett says. "People no longer with us, families separated. There's always a lot of anxiety, and I think everybody at one time or another feels like the prodigal son or daughter."
"The Gathering" has songs steeped in that uncertainty over whether a holiday reunion is going to be all right, from the viewpoint of both parents and kids. That's a heavy subject, but there's also hilarity. "Redbird," the longest and most intricate song in the piece, describes a chaotic family gathering at a rollicking pace, with all four singers trading verses.
"Martha, she's always early
"Michael, he's always late
"Riley always brings a banjo
"Robin always brings a date
"Becky, she skips the ice
"Bobby makes the drinks too strong
"Aunt Jenny kisses twice
"Uncle Jackie hugs too long..."
"I felt like I had to simplify, leave room for the orchestra to tell the story," Dossett says. "I tried to make everything less wordy, but 'Redbird' was the exception. I wanted to make it simple like 'Cotton-Eye Joe' or 'Liza Jane,' all these quick little sentences, but it wasn't translating to a symphony."
Dossett worked on "The Gathering" with composer Aaron Grad, a Virginia native known for bridging different styles. Grad crafted orchestral arrangements to fit Dossett's string-band songs.
"The commission called for something 'of North Carolina,' " Dossett says. "I have the reputation of writing things with an Appalachian feel, so I wanted mandolin and banjo. But I didn't want it to sound like an orchestra just playing along with a bluegrass band."
Judging from rehearsals, "The Gathering" sounds like a whole piece.
"It's a unique formula, where the orchestra isn't just distant background texture but one of the protagonists," says Llewellyn. "It's an extraordinary integration of art forms, marrying a full symphony orchestra to what is essentially a folk cantata. It's pretty new territory."
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