Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 25, 2009

Love, loss and longing

I was among the first in line to buy tickets when David Littrell invited Gold Orchestra members and their families to attend last Tuesday night's concert featuring Jay Ungar and Molly Mason with the Kansas State University Orchestra. Ungar, who is from New York, but graduated in anthropology from K-State in the 1960s, has appeared, with Mason, on PBS's "Great Performances" and on Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion. Both are renowned fiddle players.

Ungar is best known for his composition of the hauntingly beautiful song, "Ashokan Farewell." It was originally written as a waltz at the end of one of his and Mason's "Fiddle and Dance" summer music camps, located at the State University of New York New Paltz Ashokan Field Campus.

"It was a moment of deep emotion after the summer camps at Ashokan had ended," Ungar states on the PBS Web site. "It was the third summer . . . And it had been such a deeply moving experience and the community of people and the feeling of unity that we had had through music, and being away from the regular world was so important to me that when I'd gotten home, I had a sense of loss and longing; and I was looking for a Scottish lament . . . And I couldn't think of one, so I just started playing, and this tune came out. And it brought me to tears. And every time I played the beginning of it, for months afterward, I was brought to tears."

I first heard "Ashokan Farewell" nearly 20 years ago when husband Art and I were watching Ken Burns' Civil War series on PBS. The song was woven throughout the nine-part documentary that used old photos, music, letters, diary entries and narration to tell the story of what Burns describes as "the greatest event in American history - where, paradoxically, in order to become one, we had to tear ourselves in two."

I've heard the song many times since 1990, but it never fails to elicit strong emotions in me. When I accompanied Uncle Stan and Aunt Kay to Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2004 to see the World War II memorial, the song was being played over loudspeakers at the Lincoln Memorial. Stan, Kay and I were there because Stan had served in the Pacific Theater in World War II and we wanted to see the newly-dedicated memorial. The day we were at The Mall, hundreds of flag-draped cardboard "coffins" - each representing someone who had died in the war in Iraq - lined the grass along the reflecting pool. But the song, for me, was a lament for all those who died serving their country, no matter the conflict.

I think the music is so powerful because it evokes a certain bittersweet feeling - a feeling of something gained and something lost. Last month, I heard it played at a wedding and felt those same emotions. While a wedding is certainly a happy occasion, it also has a touch of sadness because the beginning of a new family can only occur when the couple leaves their parents' homes.

Ungar said he's played "Ashokan Farewell" hundreds or maybe even thousands of times. Before playing it Tuesday night, he compared what was happening in the nation in the late 1850s and early 1860s with what is happening today. An economic depression then was followed by a civil war. He said he hoped such a conflict won't be repeated today, even though the nation is experiencing an economic depression and people of different political beliefs are becoming increasingly polarized.

"People wonder, you know, 'How can you not tire of it, or still play it with feeling?'" he said. "And I feel lucky that this is a tune that I've become known for, because I love it so much. And I receive letters every week, still, from people who have personal stories of how it's affected them. So, for me - I might not play it for myself now - but I know I'm playing it for somebody who cares about it out there; and that's what makes it possible to continue playing it - and playing it like I mean it."

Ungar and Mason played "Ashokan Farewell" to wrap up the performance Tuesday. As the familiar song filled the auditorium, my eyes filled with tears as they often had before. Ungar, Mason and the K-State Orchestra played it like they meant it.

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