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December 03, 2016
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Two women, 12 instruments

The women of Simple Gifts play 12 instruments collectively and enjoy playing a wide variety of musical genres, from folk to Klezmer.
Contributed photo

When you go to a Simple Gifts concert, you can expect to hear a variety of musical genres played on a variety of instruments. Karen Hirshon and Linda Littleton, two of the women in Simple Gifts, say audiences will learn and they will also laugh.

You, too, can learn and laugh with this folk duo when they play at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on April 27 at 2 p.m. in the Event Gallery as part of the center’s World Stage Series. When you walk into the room you will see about a dozen instruments. There will be common instruments, like fiddle or guitar, as well as odder instruments, but you can expect to know what they all are by the end and know what they sound like. Prior to the concert, there will be a music activity for kids at 12:30 p.m., where they will learn how to play the spoons.

Simple Gifts, which plays as either a duo or a trio (the third member is Rachel Hall), is based out of central Pennsylvania. They formed in 1989. Hirshon and Littleton each picked up the violin as her first instrument at 10 and seven years old respectively. From the violin, they moved on to many other instruments. Hirshon said that once you learn how to play one string instrument, it’s not difficult to play others. She became interested in folk music and learned to play the string instruments in that genre. Littleton said she began in bluegrass music and then became fascinated by world music. Now, there are 12 instruments in their repertoire. “Instruments seem to add themselves, they jump into our laps,” said Littleton, with a laugh. Hirshon added, “If someone gives you an instrument, you have to play it.”

Drawing on an impressive variety of ethnic folk styles, this award-winning duo plays everything from lively Irish jigs and down-home American reels to hard-driving klezmer and haunting Gypsy melodies, spicing the mix with the distinctive rhythms of Balkan dance music, the lush sounds of Scandinavian twin fiddling and original compositions written in a traditional style.

“Playing music from different cultures helps you understand the culture and the people from the culture,” said Littleton. “We’re both interested in educating our audience through music about some of these cultures. We both have a strong commitment to the whole concept of diversity and tolerance of other cultures. This is a very positive way to help lead people to that decision.”

Their upcoming Bethel Woods performance represents the culmination of their year-long artist residency in Sullivan County. Since September 2013, Simple Gifts has visited Sullivan County five times. During this period, they performed and led workshops at local schools, offered professional critiques to local musicians, explored musical traditions with local synagogues and Jewish community groups, and met with and taught student musicians. They also provided an intensive training to the Hurleyville Ukulele Orchestra, meeting with the group four times over the course of the year. The orchestra will join them at their April 27 performance.

Margaret Hughes is the director of educational initiatives at Bethel Woods. She said of their residency, “It’s been really great to bring music to the community for a whole year and we’re hoping that we can do more of this in the future. Bethel Woods is all about making the arts available and accessible to everyone.”

Littleton and Hirshon agree with her. “The outreach aspect of the Bethel arts center has been wonderful for us,” said Hirshon. “We were going into the different communities and meeting people and letting them know what a rich heritage they have in the area and a willing arts center to engage people. It’s time for people to start getting together again in groups and enjoying each other, and folk music and arts centers are one of the best ways to do that.”