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Fiddle supergroup Childsplay prepares for the final bow

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After 33 years, the fiddle supergroup collective known as Childsplay is preparing to set out on a final series of holiday shows beginning in mid-November. Guided by acclaimed fiddler and luthier Bob Childs, the group’s final Maine performance is scheduled for Saturday, November 16, at the State Theatre in Portland.

“The Maine audiences are really the best audiences that we have played for,” Childs said during an interview from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “They are so enthusiastic. I think that’s because there is such a great fiddling and step-dancing tradition in Maine. It runs deep there. The response from a Maine audience is always exhilarating for the band and we’re thrilled to be playing there. We’ll have a solid Maine contingent in the band.”

Childsplay includes more than two dozen leading virtuosos in traditional and contemporary fiddle music and has entertained audiences throughout the United States and Europe with traditional fiddle music, including Irish, French-Canadian, Cape Breton, Appalachian, Scandinavia, as well as jazz, swing and classical.

Each fiddler and violist in Childsplay plays an instrument crafted by Bob Childs, who began making violins in Maine in the 1970s, after being trained by the late violin maker Ivie Mann of Orrington. Like siblings who share a tonal DNA, a concert by Childsplay unites the instruments with a singular tone.

“A violin is like a human voice,” Childs said. “Each is distinct and individual, but like a family that sings together, there is a familial tone, and I believe that’s what each of my instruments possesses.”

Childs says the holiday tours from Childsplay have become a tradition for the performers in the band, comparing the annual gatherings to a family reunion.

“We’ve built up so many memories over the years; not only musical memories but also memories of how we’ve worked together as a group,” he said. “As (Irish) singer Karan Casey has said, we’re a true democracy in that there is no conductor, there is no one leader, and everyone has a voice in how we put pieces together.”

Fiddler Ellen Gawler of Belgrade has been part of Childsplay since the beginning.

“At one time or another, every member of my family has been invited to become part of the band,” she said.

Gawler’s daughter Elsie is a cellist in the group, while her daughter Molly plays the fiddle and is a featured dancer. Her husband John has played the banjo; daughter Edith has joined in for three-part harmony.

Ellen says the sound of all of those Childs-built instruments coming together on the stage during a Childsplay concert is awe-inspiring.

“There is nothing like being immersed in this huge sound with leading edge arrangements and compositions with a host of prominent fiddlers and masterful musicians in their own right,” she said.

Childsplay’s farewell tour will feature several special guests, including champion dancers Maureen Berry and Kevin Doyle, singers Karan Casey and Aoife O’Donovan, all-Ireland fiddle champion Sheila Falls, National Scottish Fiddle Champions Hanneke Cassel and Katie McNally and Boston Symphony violinist Bonnie Bewick.

“It’s a really fun group of people and a really fun show,” said fiddler and singer Lissa Schneckenburger, a Mainer currently residing in Vermont. A performer in Childsplay for 13 years, Lissa is also a member of the group Low Lily.

Schneckenburger began helping out at the merchandise table at Childsplay shows two decades ago and eventually acquired her own Childs fiddle.

“We put on a really exciting show for people to watch and that’s always satisfying,” she said. “It’s bittersweet to know that these are going to be the farewell shows for Childsplay. We’re definitely going to shed a few tears on the last show, partly to say farewell to the music, the fun and the friendships, but also because I think all of that hard work meant something.”

Dancer and fiddler Molly Gawler of Monroe has been part of Childsplay for more than half of her life. She also performs in The Gawler Sisters group.

“It’s been a rich artistic experience for me because I’ve been able to work in Childsplay in multiple ways,” Molly said. “In 2008, Bob asked me to create a dance, so I’ve been choreographing these modern dances, and I have two of them in this show.”

Molly says she’ll never forget the reaction from a dance piece she created for Childsplay performances in 2018, based on Hanneke Cassel’s piece, “The Last Hallelujah.”

“The dance piece is universal, but it’s also very personal, because it’s about my first son, who died,” she said. “It seemed to really touch people. I met so many people after those shows that would put their hand on their heart and tell me how much it really touched them. That is something I will never forget.”

Childsplay’s lineup includes musicians and dancers from around the world. According to Ellen Gawler, they share a love of the music and a deep admiration for the group’s namesake.

“Bob Childs in an extraordinary person,” she said. “He values and cares deeply about everybody that he deals with. Each member of Childsplay has a warm and lovely relationship with Bob. He sets the tone and it reverberates through all of us.”

As much as Childs is looking forward to Childsplay’s upcoming holiday tour, he says that he feels a real sadness that it will be the last.

“There is always some part of me that wishes it was different; that could imagine playing again at some point,” he said, citing the massive expense involved with staging an annual tour with such a large group.

Childs made the difficult decision to stop making new instruments last year due to a weakening of his vision.

“Because of the high level of quality in the instruments that I’ve made, and the musicians that have them, I decided to stop because I didn’t want to make anything that wasn’t at that level,” he said.

Since crafting his first instrument more than 40 years ago, Childs has created 165 violins. He says he is satisfied with that number.

“When Ivie Mann trained me in the craft of making violins, he told me a story about violin-maker’s Heaven and it has always stayed with me. In order to get in, you have to make one more violin than your predecessor. His predecessor was Allie Batchelder of Franfort, Maine. Allie’s predecessor was his father, Edwin. Edwin was a shipbuilder who made 13 violins. Allie made 98 violins, so he got into violin-maker’s Heaven. Before he died in 1982, Ivie finished his 99th violin, so he got into violin-maker’s Heaven. Since I made 165 violins, I’m hoping my passport is stamped.”

(Tickets for all six of Childsplay’s farewell holiday shows, including the November 16 concert at the State Theatre in Portland, are available at www.Childsplay.org . Two shows will be performed on November 24 at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and will be filmed for broadcast by PBS.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 22 October 2019 09:21

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