BYU musicians bridge culture, language in Europe

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By WHITNEY EVANS

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Mountain Strings, BYU’s premier folk band, is in the middle of what most musicians would call a killer gig — touring central Europe.

This band put its skills to the test at a folk dance gala on Margaret Island on Saturday in Budapest, where the band performed a Hungarian piece it had learned only days before. Members of the band appeared calm and collected just before the show, making last-minute adjustments suggested by artist manager Jonathon Wood, himself a former BYU folk band member, and artistic director Edwin G. Austin Jr.

The band showed commitment and camaraderie as it prepared for the new number by taking time out of its sightseeing schedule to work together on the music. Band members have been seen playing their instruments in the hallways of their hotel and on their tour bus.

Photo by Stephanie Rhodes. Members from the Mountain Strings Band play while practicing with the International Folk Dance Team before marching in a parade in Hungary. BYU's International Folk Dance Ensemble is touring together through Central Europe.

Mountain Strings is accompanying the BYU International Folk Dance team on a month-long tour of Hungary, Croatia and the Czech Republic. Last week in Budapest, the band performed at a cultural arts center in a former Soviet Union military installation, at a fireside in a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a parade and at a large outdoor amphitheater.

In Provo, band members spent much of the last year playing music together six hours per week in a formal setting and numerous other hours informally. Under the direction of BYU part-time music faculty member and folk music director Mark Geslison, the musicians have learned to arrange new music, perform new styles and learn new arrangements as little as three days before a performance.

“[Mark] trains us quite well so when we’re on tour we can do all this stuff on our own,” said band vocalist, guitarist and accordion player Andrew Sorber. “We get put in situations where things are demanded of us that we’ve never had to do before. The fact that it works out always surprises me.”

On this tour of central Europe, music has proven to be a bridge across cultural divides and over language barriers. In Budapest on Saturday night, Mountain Strings band members joined with a professional band for the Hungarian State Folk Dance Ensemble in a performance filmed for local television. Several BYU students played along with the Hungarians on accordion and drums, among other instruments.

BYU band members and dancers put on a fireside Friday when they played music and sang and spoke their testimonies in English before a Hungarian-speaking audience. Bassist Tim Krumwiede said he used to wonder if a testimony could really be expressed through music, but his experiences in the folk band have convinced him they can be.

“The gospel has permeated our lives so well, and by playing our music we are sharing our lifestyle,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m just saying that. I can really feel it.”

In their role as musicians for the BYU folk dancers, Mountain Strings members appear front and center on some big stages. Their skills as performers have delighted crowds around Budapest.

“This group helped me to see how fun performing can be,” said Erin Patterson, who plays the mandolin and guitar and sings harmony. “My belief is if it’s not entertaining to the audience, it’s not worth that much.”

While eclectic, the band members have successfully blended their musical influences — including Celtic, jazz, country, bluegrass and classical — to create a unique type of folk sound described by Krumwiede as being progressive while preserving the roots of traditional folk music.

Wood said the acoustic variety this group offers is what distinguishes it from other bands of its kind.

“They all come from different backgrounds but they really gel,” Wood said of the members of Mountain Strings. “Wow! How did this hodgepodge group of people become so tight and work so well?”

These differences have been their greatest strength, Sorber said.

“We all bring different stuff to the table and we all learn from each other,” he said. “The differences end up being the best thing we have.”

Ashlee Carroll, who plays the fiddle, is in her third year with Mountain Strings but will leave the band after the European tour to focus on schooling and preparing for graduation.

“It has literally been the biggest highlight of my college experience so far,” Carroll said.

The seven-member band, along with 27 dancers, planned to leave Budapest this morning en route to Prague in the Czech Republic, where it will perform several days before traveling to Croatia for additional performances.

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