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January 19, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Cover story: String sisters -- Natalie and Brittany Haas are young rising stars in the world of traditional fiddle music Cover story: String sisters -- Natalie and Brittany Haas are young rising stars in the world of traditional fiddle music (January 19, 2005)

By Rebecca Wallace

Almanac Staff Writer

Some places nurture creativity.

Even after only a few steps inside, the Haas family home in Menlo Oaks feels like a birthplace of fine and lively music.

The front room is all windows and green views of the lush back yard. Nearby is a rehearsal space replete with CDs -- Stravinsky's "Firebird" and "The Tao of Cello," to name two. There are concert posters, tour photos, and dried roses tied with a red bow. A black upright piano watches over everything sagely, and two cello cases sit covered with autographs and stickers from distant parts.

Another rehearsal space in the back, also lined with posters and photos, has cozy floral wallpaper and a red velvet couch and a banjo. This is where devotees of fiddle music gather, playing and improvising long into the night.

Being in this house makes you feel as though, even if you aren't a musician, you could be. Small wonder that two such talented sisters hail from here.

Natalie Haas, a 21-year-old cellist, is immersed in classical training as a student at the Juilliard School. She's also following her passion for Scottish traditional music in a big way, touring with her mentor-turned-music partner, renowned Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser. Their duo CD, "Fire and Grace," was named album of the year at the annual Scots Trad Music Awards in Edinburgh last month.

Younger sister Brittany, 18 years old and a senior at Menlo School, is also classically trained but quick to call herself a fiddler, not a violinist. Her love is a type of folk music called "old-time," replete with Southern Appalachian tunes from North Carolina and Kentucky and tinged with Celtic and African influences.

Brittany has also put out a self-titled CD that she peddles at gigs and through her Web site.

The sisters play with numerous musical groups; for example, Natalie has performed and recorded as a member of Mark O'Connor's Appalachia Waltz Trio, and Brittany has done so with the Darol Anger Fiddle Ensemble.

Despite the accolades being heaped on such young heads, the sisters have an unaffected charm. They'd rather talk about the spirit of a tune than the smell of success, and both say one of the main appeals of folk music is its warm, tight community, where seasoned musicians are happy to mentor the up-and-coming. Friendships flourish onstage and up in the mountains at fiddle camps.

"It's not a huge world. You get to meet the people who are your heroes," Brittany says.

Family ties are also strong for the sisters, who during a recent interview jump at the chance to play together while Natalie's home from school for winter break. Talking once a week and humming over the phone lines just isn't the same.

In the homey back rehearsal room, they grab their instruments and dive in, watching each other as the fiddle notes skip and thread through the rich resonance of the cello. An easy understanding flows between them.

Afterward, Brittany explains that the song is "a halling, a Norwegian hat dance. A girl stands on a chair with a pole with a hat on it."

"And a boy tries to get it off," Natalie finishes. "It's kind of like a mating dance."

Brittany likes the character her fiddle takes on in this tune: "It's kind of grumbly, low."

Natalie begins to say that the song suits her cello because most fiddle tunes are higher, but then breaks off, cocking her head at Brittany. The two may be impressive musicians, but at heart they're just sisters. "Are you wearing my earrings?" she asks with a smile.
'We adopted each other'

When Bruce Molsky met Brittany Haas, she was running rings around him -- literally. He was teaching at Alasdair Fraser's fiddle camp, Valley of the Moon in the Santa Cruz mountains, and she was a precocious 10-year-old.

"I was just minding my own business and there'd be this little girl making large, fast circles around me," he recalls. "She was a kid. She liked the music I was making and she wanted to make contact, but she didn't know how."

Brittany had been playing the violin since she was 5, but there was something that struck her about Mr. Molsky's style, she says.

"We kind of adopted each other," Mr. Molsky says. "She heard that old-time fiddle music and something about it made me think about when I first fell in love with the music."

Mr. Molsky, who plays fiddle, banjo and guitar, became a mentor to Brittany and played on her first CD. Fiddler Darol Anger, another mentor, produced it. Tunes include the sweet, poignant "Dry and Dusty" ("I want this to be played at my wake," Brittany writes in the liner notes) and livelier offerings such as "Fisher's Hornpipe."

Much of this kind of music is improvised, with musicians working around traditional tunes to make them their own. Very few of the notes on Brittany's CD were written down in advance, she says.

Improvisation comes naturally to Brittany, Mr. Molsky says.

"Brittany doesn't act like she's got anything to prove with the music," he says. "It just flows out of her. It's obvious to me that she feels very deep things when she plays. All musicians live for that moment, when the music is really an expression. It makes you feel like a real person."

Sitting at the Haas dining room table with a cat orbiting her ankles, Brittany tries to put words to her connection with old-time music. "The rhythm is part of it and the ringing quality of the sound," she says. "The feeling inside -- it's so dance-oriented, and there's such a nice community."
Restoring the cello's soul

For such an accomplished musician, Natalie Haas actually started playing "late" in life, at the advanced age of 9.

"One teacher wouldn't take her because it was too late," the sisters' mother, Barbara, recalls. Obviously, other teachers didn't feel that way, and Natalie took up the cello instead of the violin "so she wouldn't compete with Brittany," Barbara says.

That tack seems to have worked. At the Haas dining room table, the sisters look at each other and giggle, then shake their heads, when asked if they've ever been competitive with each other.

"We have different styles," Brittany says.

Natalie adds: "I've been studying classical music for so long. She's a great improviser; she helps me."

But Natalie is also off forging trails on her own. While many people think of the cello only as a rich, smooth member of an orchestra, she's bent on restoring the instrument to its historic place as a rhythmic fixture in Scottish dance music.

"The time has come for the cello to be reintroduced to its rhythmic soul. Just because we here at Juilliard are classical musicians doesn't mean we can't groove," she wrote in the Juilliard Journal publication last spring.

On "Fire & Grace," Natalie's duo CD with Alasdair Fraser, her cello lilts on the slow tunes but bursts with unexpected power in faster reels. Not just an accompanist to a fiddle melody, the cello is a jumping, driving force.

Like Natalie, Mr. Fraser seems to be thriving on the energy of their musical pairing.

"We can 'duck and dive' around each other, swap melody and harmony lines, and improvise on each other's rhythmic riffs. She has such a great sense of exploration and excitement for the music; it's a joy to play with her," he was quoted as saying on the Web site for Culburnie Records, which put out "Fire & Grace."

Natalie hasn't left classical music behind her. She sees it as an excellent foundation "to hone your chops on an instrument, technique-wise," and her touring plans include the classical chamber circuit.

But she thrives on the liberty found in folk music, she says. "You have the freedom to make sounds you could never make in an orchestra without people giving you a funny look."

Indeed. A reviewer from The Times in the United Kingdom once wrote, "Haas can make her instrument sound like the drone of a hurdy-gurdy, the jangle of a guitar, or the thump of a string bass."
A musical future

With young musicians, maintaining the delicate balance between practicing and school -- and then, of course, factoring in any other ways one might choose to spend one's time -- can be tenuous.

So Natalie, perched on the edge of graduation from Juilliard, says she'll be ready to be finished with school.

She practices three to four hours "on a good day," combining that with classes, teaching and touring. She recently toured in Spain and is now in Scotland for a music festival. While Juilliard teachers are typically understanding about that sort of thing, Natalie will be glad for more time to pursue music as a full-time career.

Meanwhile, Brittany practices about two hours a day, and tours off and on when school allows. She's been accepted at Princeton University, where she plans to study music but major in "biology or some other science."

"I'm really lucky that I started so early; I can see both worlds," she says. "Music will always be a part of my life, but maybe I will pursue something else."

Natalie, though, has other ideas. Alluding to the sisters' mentors, she says encouragingly in Brittany's direction, "Bruce and Alasdair went to college, became engineers, and gave it up to pursue music. I hope that'll happen to Brittany so we can tour together. A sister act."

No matter what the sisters do, Bruce Molsky says they will benefit from their healthy approach to music. They lead balanced lives and they don't put too much pressure on themselves, largely because their parents, Barbara and Stephen, encouraged them to enjoy music without being pushy stage parents, he says.

"To be able to relax and allow kids to flourish is really important," he says.

When Brittany and Natalie are asked if they've given anything up to focus on music, they answer immediately and in unison: "No."

Natalie speaks with certainty. "I've devoted my life to what I want to do."

On the road

Life is a classroom and a concert hall for 18-year-old fiddler Brittany Haas and her sister, 21-year-old cellist Natalie. Here are samples of their busy touring schedules. For more, go to their Web sites, www.brittanyhaas.com and www.nataliehaas.com.
Brittany

** February 4-6: Performing with the Darol Anger Fiddle Ensemble in Oregon and Washington. ** March 31-April 2: With the Darol Anger Fiddle Ensemble in Alaska. ** April 16: With her sister at Natalie's graduation at the Juilliard School. ** May 29: With the Darol Anger Fiddle Ensemble in Napa. ** June 24-26: With Bruce Molsky at the Old Songs Festival in New York.
Natalie ** January 12-16: Performing with Alasdair Fraser at the Celtic Connections festival in Scotland. ** January 23: With the Appalachia Waltz Trio in Arizona. ** February 12-13: With the Appalachia Waltz Trio in Michigan. ** March 2, 5: With the Appalachia Waltz Trio in Pennsylvania and New York. ** March 11: With Alasdair Fraser in North Carolina.


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