One member now in college, but Emeralds return for fourth fest

Posted: Thursday, April 15, 2004

When the Emeralds played the Alaska Folk Festival last year, and received a standing ovation on a Friday night, the Anchorage teens had just released their first compact disc, "The Emerald Edge," and were without fiddle player Martha Leffek.

They're back for the fourth time, and they've weathered a few changes. Pianist Ethan Barske, the first Emerald to head to college, is a freshman at Linnfield College in McMinnville, Ore. (The rest of the band, ages 15 to 18, is still in high school.) They added two new members in August: bass player Tyler Tornfelt and mandolin/guitarist Eric Rodgers. And they're in the process of recording a new CD with more "straight jazzy" tunes.

The group, fiddlers Matthew Smith, Matthew Crimp, Amanda Kerr and Leffek, pianist Barkse and bass player Tornfelt, plays at 1:15 p.m. Saturday, April 17, at Centennial Hall. (Rodgers can't make the trip.)

"We've started doing a couple bluegrass tunes, and we're able to do some more string jazz, Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappeli-type stuff," said Smith, 15, a sophomore at Chugiak High School. "I've been playing some jazz violin, and a couple of the other members have sort of toyed with that. And all of us are interested in seeing more improvisation."

"We know them and they're really good," said fiddler Collin Stackhouse, of the Fairbanks teen group Slightly Askew. "So we're really nervous about playing a couple hours after them." (Slightly Askew plays at 3:15 p.m.)

Smith and Crimp, then 7, formed the Emeralds with Leffek, then 8, in 1996. All three of their names began with "M," and hence, the "EM-eralds." The trio was inspired by Evergreen, a group of fiddling Anchorage teens.

"They played Irish music and a little bit of Klezmer, and we were really focused on Irish when we first began as a group," Smith said. "They were a little bit of inspiration for us there. And as we moved on, and they went on to college, we sort of kept them as a reminder of where we could go."

Kerr, now a successful contest fiddler, joined the band in 1998. Barkse, an adjunct member of Evergreen, followed in 1999. He graduated from high school last spring.

"It's pretty hard for four fiddlers to play alone," Smith said. "He's not here enough to really practice, so we kind of wanted to add the other two so we had backup the whole time."

"It's real interesting to do the solo improvisation with the bass and guitar," he said. "It's kind of like taking a risk. When you have the whole thing polished, you know what style you're going to play. It takes a lot more creativity and flair to think of something that's going to sound not only decent, but something that sounds cool."

A few of the members have gone to classical music camps around the country, but the Emeralds have not performed formally outside of Alaska. The group has played in the Anchorage area, Seward, Denali and Juneau.

"Last year at folk festival, we played mostly fancy fiddle stuff and a couple of standard-style contest tunes," Smith said. "This year we're focusing on jazzier stuff, playing one bluegrass tune and then going to some swing jazz sort of stuff."

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