Is exceptional musical talent a matter of nature or nurture?
In Europe, there is a tradition of keeping music all in the family: the Bach's went on for two hundred years, Mozart & Son were a fine company, and, dare we say, the Lennon family - John, Julian, and Sean- has done well.
On this side of the Atlantic, we have a similar musical "aristocracy," with numerous artists passing down their talent from generation to generation. These dynasties transcend genres, from classical to jazz to blues to pop, with many hybrids, with such notable parent and child combos as Nat King Cole & Natalie, Ruth Crawford Seeger & Peter, Loudon Wainright & Rufus, Frank Zappa & Dweezil.
Few father and son musicians are as distinctively American as Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) and his son Arlo, who joins us here at Wolf Trap. As a folk solo artist and with groups such as the Weavers, Woody Guthrie distinguished himself as an advocate downtrodden and a true poet of Americana. His songs are so integrated into the American vernacular that it's hard to believe that one man wrote them all: "If I Had a Hammer," "Good Night Irene," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." Like Aaron Copland, Irving Berlin, and Duke Ellington in their respective fields, the sound of Woody Guthrie defined a genre.
Woody's son Arlo made his own name at age twenty with the 1967 classic "Alice's Restaurant." A talking-blues song, it was not your typical three-minute doo-wop Top 40 pop tune. At 18 minutes- which in live performances he could stretch to an hour- Arlo's anti-Vietnam anti-establishment song became an emblem of social change for his generation.
From 1975 until the 19902 Arlo Guthrie performed and toured with his band Shenandoah. A fine musician (playing the piano, 6- and 12-string guitar, harmonica, and a dozen other instruments), Arlo defined the concept of "performance artist" by weaving tales and anecdotes in his concerts. He has performed with other great folk musicians of our time, including Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Judy Collins, and John Prine.
Tonight, as part of his tradition of sharing the stage, he is joined by Time for Three, an ensemble that blurs the line between classical, country and jazz, with a little gypsy thrown in. The "Three" include violinists Zachary De Pue and Nicolas Kendall and bassist Ranaan Meyer. They developed their rapport through improvisation as students at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute and went onto careers as orchestral musicians.
But it was a fateful night in August 2003 that changed their careers: a power outage at a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra at the outdoor Mann Center (sort of like Wolf Trap, but not nearly as fun) left management scrambling to keep the audience entertained while technicians tried to fix the problem. De Pue, a full-time Philadelphia Orchestra member, and Meyer, who was playing as a substitute, were already known as talented improvisationalists, were drafted to the stage. The crowd went wild and new stars were born. To date they have performed commissioned works by noted composers, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jennifer Higdon, and have performed with orchestras and at popular venues around the world.
Will lightning strike twice? If so, you've got nothing to worry about. Arlo and Time for Three and the NSO will go on.
Unless, of course, the lightning strikes me.
The National Symphony Orchestra with Arlo Guthrie and Time for Three performs tonight at 8:15 pm.