On a Monday night, the lavish blue auditorium of Memorial Hall on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill—generally teeming with concerts and workshops and presentations—is unexpectedly empty.
The violinist and former UNC teacher Jennifer Curtis doesn't have a key, but the security guard tells her that she is free to practice, that the door will lock automatically when she finally leaves. So, alongside a pianist, Curtis prepares to stay late in order to perfect the pieces of a program, The Road From Transylvania Home, she will premiere with a motley crew of a dozen musicians in just five days. One could say the thirty-seven-year-old violinist has been preparing this set of music her whole life. Why not get it right?
Each part of The Road stems from Curtis's strangely interconnected storylines—namely, her youth as a fiddler in Chapel Hill and her classical training as a violinist in California and New York. When she discovered the work of the late Romanian composer George Enescu nearly a decade ago, his music unexpectedly pulled those narratives together. That process is at the center of The Road, which mixes recently discovered Enescu pieces with Curtis's own compositions. Her work integrates his Transylvanian musical codex and her North Carolina roots. Banjo actually meets buzuq; drums and accordion mingle with mandolin.
"Once I got on this road of Enescu's music, all these opportunities kept popping up," she says. "It's been a cyclic process."
Curtis was preparing for her first solo recital in Carnegie Hall in 2006 when she heard an Enescu piece that stunned her. She'd heard Enescu before and studied some of his collaborators and contemporaries, but his work suddenly resonated.
"He was a fiddler—his first violin teacher, if you could even call it that, was a Gypsy fiddler," says Curtis. "He was learning tunes by ear, and that stayed with him and his artistic identity throughout his lifetime, even though he made his life as a concert violinist and composer."
Curtis began playing violin by studying the Suzuki method when she was three years old alongside her cousins. On the way to and from lessons, they would sit in the backseat of her grandmother's blue station wagon, practicing. At five, she taught herself piano after watching her mother play it; they would perform traditional tunes together, with just a mandolin and fiddle. Curtis eventually learned bass, drums, and guitar. In Enescu's music, she recognized a similar folk soul and classical mind—"this neglected genius that I happen to be a kindred spirit with," she says.
"It's this perfect blend for me," she says, "the pathos of the Romanian soul, bathed in the impressionistic hues of the French musical aesthetic."
Curtis followed this new passion to Illinois, where Sherban Lupu, a Romanian-born Enescu expert, taught at the University of Illinois. The enthusiasm of the young New York violinist impressed Lupu, so he offered her the chance to premiere several of the master's unfinished solo violin pieces, which he'd just published as a manuscript. Enescu had intended to complete one as a violin concerto, but he never finalized the arrangement. Lupu stripped away those fragments, leaving Curtis to play the technically daunting Fantasie Concertante alone.
"I ended up with this authoritative edition, a first edition, of these pieces that no one else had ever seen outside of Romania," Curtis says, as if still stunned by the serendepity. Now, a month after making them the centerpiece of The Road From Transylvania Home, and after nearly a decade of performing the pieces, she will begin recording them in May for her debut album.
Despite Enescu's heroic stature in Romania (he appeared on the country's fifty-thousand lei banknote) and his place as an emotional master in the classical canon, Curtis knows that, for many, his music remains obscure. This is especially true for pieces that, so far, exist only in academic circles and textbooks. Her goal is to make sure it's not obtuse.
The recordings will help, especially since she thinks Fantasie Concertante is poised to become a major contribution to the solo violin repertory. But by adding her own music to The Road From Transylvania Home, and by connecting her story and sound to those of Enescu, she hopes to make this old, almost lost work immediate and accessible.
"I want to create a soundscape of music that welcomes people to his world," she says. "I don't want there to be barriers about who's more educated with music or who's listened to more world music. I'm trying to put a lens on it to invite North Carolinians, from present society. I want this music to go straight to the heart."
This article appears in print with the headline "Strung Together."