When Jay Ungar took up his fiddle and composed the lilting lament “Ashokan Farewell” in 1982, he had no idea the tune would become a life-changing masterpiece.
The quietly affecting tune was inspired by and named for the Ashokan Music and Dance camps run by Ungar and his musical partner and wife, Molly Mason, in New York’s Catskill Mountains near Woodstock.
“Ashokan Farewell” found its way to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who was so taken with the tune’s haunting reverie that he used it as the theme for his 1990 PBS series, “The Civil War.”
“Some people still think it (the tune) came from the Civil War,” says Ungar who, with Mason, will join Scottish fiddle master Alasdair Fraser and Julliard-trained cellist Natalie Haas for “A Fiddler’s Feast” Sunday at Durham’s Carolina Theatre.
“People in the Catskills feel very connected to the tune because that’s what it’s named for – a place in the Catskills. It’s helped us connect with the region we live in, and to write more music that is based on the land and people and local history.”
With the success of “The Civil War,” which was seen by some 40 million viewers in its original run, and the CD soundtrack, “Ashokan Farewell” reached far beyond the Catskills into a worldwide phenomenon. It’s been performed by both symphony orchestras and small folk combos here and abroad, and provided opportunities for Ungar and Mason to perform in some rather prestigious settings.
The duo has performed twice at the White House and played on soundtracks of the films “Legends of the Fall” and “Brother’s Keeper.” They received a 3-year grant as composers-in-residence in the Catskills, which led to collaborations with orchestras, including the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra and the Lancaster (Ohio) Festival Orchestra.
They have also performed with Irish flutist James Galway, and were commissioned by the National Park Service to write music for last year’s ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary of the raising of the Stars and Stripes over Fort Sumter in South Carolina. In April, they will perform at Fort Moultrie, S.C., for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
The duo’s website lists some 14 CDs recorded together, and over the years, they’ve received letters from folks who have found solace in their music.
“We’ve received communications from people who have found some of our music has a healing quality and helped them or relatives through a very difficult life experience,” Ungar says. “Because of that, more than 10 years ago, Molly put together a compilation of music from our CDs she thought would be good for people who needed healing.
“It wasn’t long after she put that together that she was diagnosed with a very serious brain tumor. That was in 2004. That particular set of recordings helped her and me through that period. Now, more than 10 years later, we’ve decided to issue the compilation along with some new tunes. One of the tunes that I wrote during her recovery is a tribute to her strength. It’s called ‘The Quiet Room,’ named after a room in the hospital where I worked on music.”
The CD is scheduled for release later this year.
Ungar and Mason are pleased that “The Civil War” soundtrack contributed to an awareness of traditional American roots music. The soundtrack, says Ungar, “tended to open folks’ ears to appreciating music from the 19th century and American roots. It was one of the many recordings that happened in the 1990s that gave a real boost to American roots music.”
The tour bringing them to Durham this weekend is the foursome’s second tour together. Fraser is one of Scotland’s finest traditional fiddlers, and Hass is credited with bringing the cello back into traditional Scottish music. Each couple will play a set and will be joined at the end of the set by the other musicians. The music promises to be eclectic, imaginative and bold.
“We choose some material that Americans do, but have Celtic or Scottish roots,” Ungar says. “One of the tunes we love to play together is a beautiful air (a song-like composition), ‘Mrs. Jamieson’s Favourite.’ It’s a beautiful Scottish air from the early 1800s – contemporary with Mozart. Another type of tune that is really fun is a high-energy reel that you can dance to. There are some Cape Breton tunes that work well together. Also, a tune like ‘Beaumont Rag,’ which is a Texas fiddle tune, more like swingy jazz.”
What: “A Fiddler’s Feast,” featuring Jay Ungar and Molly Mason with Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org