Let’s cello-brate! Block String Camp faculty highlights music fest

PHOTO BY BRENDA AHEARN

Music lovers who enjoy the toe-tapping exhilaration of Americana, Celtic, Brazilian, folk music, bluegrass, jazz, pop and rock are in for another treat as world-class recording artists perform during the upcoming Vero Beach International Music Festival, which takes place July 4-9 at the First Presbyterian Church of Vero Beach, concurrent with the Mike Block String Camp.

“We are very excited for our first in-person camp since 2019. It’s going to be very special to be together and to share music with the community again,” says Grammy-winning cellist Mike Block, who founded the camp in 2010.

Although Block and his equally talented wife Hanneke Cassel, an award-winning fiddle player, violinist and composer, did treat fans to a concert when they popped into town in April, the camps were held online in 2020 and 2021.

There are 14 teachers this year, including Block, and roughly 70 participants. That’s slightly fewer than prior years due to pandemic uncertainties, as faculty and students travel here from all over the world. Students this year are primarily from around the country, with only about a quarter from Florida, joined by others from Spain, Germany, Portugal, Canada and Mexico. Some one-third are new to the camp.

“Historically it’s been for the string community. So, bow string players, such as violin, viola, cello and bass, and then pick string players, such as guitar, mandolin and banjo.

But we have even had trumpet players, horn players, piano players and electric guitar players,” says Block. “The teachers play a variety of string instruments as well as percussion, and we always have a vocal component. We have a lot of singing classes this year because a lot of our teachers also sing original songs.”

The program has evolved into what is essentially two overlapping camps.

Block explains that students of all levels and ages are enrolled in the Collaborative Track, where they break out into collaborative, student-led bands. Coached by the faculty, they create arrangements and choose what pieces to play as they prepare for the final performance on Saturday evening.

Students in the advanced Apprentice Track are generally often semi-professionals and college students. A faculty member directs those bands, choosing the arrangements and musical pieces.

“They’re playing with the faculty member as opposed to the more collaborative experience with the other students,” says Block.

The concerts on Wednesday and Friday nights highlight the remarkable and varied talents of the faculty. A handful of the faculty-led Apprentice Track bands are also featured those nights. The Saturday concert is primarily students from the Collaborative Track, occasionally accompanied by faculty members. All concerts are free and open to the public.

“Basically, the concerts are for anybody interested in fun, collaborative musical experiences. There’s a nice festival atmosphere for all the musicians involved. It’s not like we’re on tour with each other every night, so this is a really special, once-a-year gathering for us as well,” says Block.

“And so, I think the audience is really going to appreciate the amount of fun that everybody is having on stage and the amount of diversity that comes with the array of performers.”

A Juilliard-trained, multi-style cellist, singer, composer, recording artist and educator, Block played with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and is the director of the Silk Road Global Musician Workshop, a Boston-based training program.

Ever-creative, Block designed the Block Strap which, eliminating the need for a chair, allows cellists to move freely about – anywhere. Block has displayed his quirky side through a “Bach in the Bathroom” video series (bachinthebathroom.com).

In them, he plays within acoustically resonant concert hall restrooms all over the world, including Lincoln Center, the New England Conservatory, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Sydney Opera House, China’s Xinghai Concert Hall, and the Seoul Arts Center in South Korea.

Cassel, one of many returning faculty, has competed, performed and taught worldwide, dynamically blending the influences of Scottish, Novia Scotian and American contemporary and traditional styles. The Boston Globe describes her music as “exuberant and rhythmic, somehow wild and innocent, delivered with captivating melodic clarity and an irresistible playfulness.”

“We’re very excited to have Curtis Stewart, who is new to camp. He’s a really brilliant classical and jazz musician based in New York City,” says Block.

A violinist and fiddler, Stewart has performed during his eclectic career with Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen at Madison Square Garden, the Jimmy Heath Big Band at the Kennedy Center, and as a classical soloist at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. His solo violin album, “Of Power,” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Classical Instrument Solo.

“He works as a teacher at Juilliard and he’s the leader of a string quartet called the Publiquartet,” says Block. “So, he’s just a really special musician, because he comes from a classical background, but he’s just a committed improviser and composer and kind of a multi-style creative person.”

Another innovative, multi-instrumentalist, Joe Troop taught his “latingrass” style in last year’s online camp, but this will be his first time teaching in Vero.

“He’s the leader of a string band called Che Apalache, based in Buenos Aires. It’s a cool fusion group that mixes music from Columbia and North Carolina, and so he’s bringing a special mixture of American bluegrass and Latin American folk music,” says Block.

Other faculty members this year:

Kimber Ludiker, a two-time Grand National Fiddle Champion, is the founding member of the Grammy-nominated, all-woman string band Della Mae, which performs nationwide.

Violinist Trina Basu, who draws on Western and Indian classical, jazz and creative improvisational traditions, co-leads the raga folk chamber ensemble Karavika.

Grammy-award winning violinist Zach Brock, described by the Chicago Tribune as “the great bright hope for jazz violin,” brings his unique combination of contemporary jazz, classical and popular music to the camp.

Cellist Natalie Haas, a Juilliard graduate and an associate professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, has enthralled audiences around the world for more than 20 years in concert with Scottish fiddler Alasdair Frasier, and as a member of the Appalachia Waltz Trio.

Grammy-nominated fiddler Casey Driessen, described as “a mad scientist with a five-string fiddle,” collaborated to release the Chop Notation Project, a free resource about chopping, a bowed string percussive bow stroke technique.

Versatile violinist Arun Ramamurthy, a leading Indian classical and crossover musician, and co-founder of the Brooklyn Raga Massive, musicians inspired by the classical music of India, instructs Indian music, performance, technique and theory.

Joe Walsh, a bluegrass mandolin player and songwriter who seeks to “craft new music from old roots,” was the first to graduate from Berklee College of Music on that instrument, and now serves on the school’s faculty.

Viola/violinist Lauren Rioux expertly leads classes and workshops around the world with an innovative curriculum and teaching style. She has toured the U.S. and Europe with other MBSC faculty including Brittany Hass.

Taylor Morris, a collaborative musician known for “blurring the line between violin and fiddle,” has toured as one of five fiddlers with Barrage, a Canadian-based troupe, and with Tricia and Taylor, a “genre-bending violin/fiddle duo” with concert violist Tricia Park.

Colin Cotter, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, was raised with a family tradition in Finnish fiddle music, before eventually diving into Scottish and Irish fiddling. A self-taught guitarist, he blends a wide range of influences across the musical spectrum.

The two faculty-led concerts take place Wednesday, July 6 and Friday, July 8. The Saturday, July 9 student concert is followed with the audience joining in on a Barn Dance with a live band. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church of Vero Beach. Concerts are free, although donations to Mike Block String Camp Scholarship Fund are appreciated.

For more information, visit verobeachinternationalmusicfestival.com.

Photos by Brenda Ahearn and provided

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