By Kristin Shafel Omiccioli
After hitting it off as students at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, Kansas City natives violinist Laurel Morgan and cellist Sascha Groschang maintained their friendship and officially formed alternative strings duo The Wires in 2009. Since then, the pair has found fresh arrangements of pop hits to perform, run a Creative Strings Workshop in the summer, and recorded and released its eponymous debut album in early 2013.
On Friday night, Morgan and Groschang took the stage on the lawn of the Kansas City Museum for a two-hour concert of contemporary string music, including a few covers and mostly originals from their album. While the cover arrangements were well done and it was fun to hear recognizable tunes (songs by the Beatles and Muse, for example), The Wires’ own compositions were far more compelling. Displaying a wide range of musical influence, The Wires’ impressive oeuvre shows traces of American jazz and blues, alt-rock, and dance and folk music from around the world, underscored by Morgan and Groschang’s highly developed technical abilities.
Not only does The Wires find inspiration from musical styles for its compositions, but travel and personal experience as well. The evening was a little like a musical trip, with pieces like the Lux Aeterna-reminiscent “Bakhtia” and slinky waltz “Zero is the River” (inspired by locations in Siberia), “Sligo” and the Fraser-Haas cover “Cuillin Nights” (Celtic), and one of the stronger tunes of the night, the gypsy folkish “Ruska Roma.” Groschang explained recent vacations to Colorado and Seattle inspired the upbeat, rhythmically driven “Red Rock” and “Coho.”
Of course, Kansas City has also inspired the duo, resulting in the tango “Argentine,” after the neighborhood, and “Lavater’s Animals,” which was conceived as part of a collaborative performance with a local visual artist. On the blues and jazz side, the duo included a tune titled “Grappelli” in the style of 1930s hot jazz French violinist Stéphane Grappelli, and the rhythmically driven “Snap” and “Native.” Two lovely Americana pieces added a nice contrast in mood to the set list, “Alexander’s Mill” (an original) and “Appalachia Waltz” by violinist Mark O’Connor.
Technique—both classical and extended—plays an integral part of a Wires performance, too. The bright “Banyan” featured cyclical harmonics as an underlying theme, and other notable techniques put forth by The Wires include chunky “chord” bow strokes, double-time arpeggios that spanned the whole range of the fingerboard, dissonant double stops, percussive tapping and pizzicatos, and more. Groschang shined on a solo work during the first half, “Julie-O,” by cellist Mark Summer of the Turtle Island Quartet.
Despite the hot and humid temperatures, The Wires’ instruments were remarkably in tune, producing a full-bodied, balanced sound. Morgan and Groschang also kept the energy up throughout the lengthy two-hour performance, especially when Morgan decided to stand during the second half. The two have the kind of unspoken chemistry on stage that comes from many years of playing together, and Friday was no exception. Their unified precision and democratic orchestration show a serious commitment to the group, and they both truly look like they enjoy themselves on stage, playing together.