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Don't be afraid: A mysterious devil fiddle is headed to Houston, but it means no harm

Hardanger fiddle Apollo Chamber Players
The Hardanger fiddle is considered the national instrument of Norway. Photo by Joel Luks
Hardanger fiddle Apollo Chamber Players
Mother of pearl inlays, delicate filigree inkings and bone adornments add to the instrument's beauty. Photo by Joel Luks
Hardanger fiddle Apollo Chamber Players
Spiral decorative feature on the scrolls. Photo by Joel Luks
Matthew Detrick Apollo Chamber Players
Matthew Detrick, Apollo Chamber Players violinist. Photo by Joel Luks
Apollo Chamber Players
The Apollo Chamber Players. Photo by Robert Seale
Christ the King Lutheran Church
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Mother of pearl inlays, delicate filigree inkings, bone adornments and fanciful spirals gracing the scrolls — not your typical trimmings for a folk instrument of any kind. One would think that musical instruments wouldn't be dressed to the nine, particularly those that were associated with the evils of the underworld, an instrument that was blasphemously infamous for rousing raucous dance parties, gratuitous drinking and violence.

No need to be afraid, folks. It's just a violin of sorts with quite a history, its mystique being the focus of the Apollo Chamber Players concert "Scandinavian Spirit," set for 6 p.m. Sunday at Christ the King Lutheran Church.

The Hardanger fiddle is thought of as the national instrument of Norway. Named for the western part of the Scandinavian Peninsula where the North and Norwegian seas meet, an area that was conquered by the Vikings, the instrument is indigenous to an environment of magnificent natural beauty — the home of the Hardangerfjord, the third largest fjord in the world.

When violinist Matthew Detrick opens the fiddle's carrying case, you can't help but gasp at the workmanship. This particular fiddle, on loan from a Houston collector, was in the hands of Hardanger virtuoso Laurel Lawshae, an Austin resident who regularly performs with the San Antonio Symphony, the Midland-Odessa Symphony and the Austin Symphony.

Detrick and fellow Apollo violinist Anabel Ramirez traveled to Austin to procure the instrument and to take lessons from Lawshae to learn how to get the most out of this little devil, which fittingly was christened Annveig, a Norse female name (veig means strength), by its maker when it was built in 1988.

In addition to the striking visual differences between the Hardanger fiddle and the modern violin, two other properties distinguish the resultant exotic timbre that's bright with harmonic overtones.

 The Hardanger fiddle won't compel you to break out into a rowdy brawl or partake in sacrilegious leisure activities.

"It has nine strings instead of the four typically found on a violin," Detrick says. "Five of those strings are placed underneath the bridge and extend through the fingerboard all the way to the scroll. But you don't play them or make them sound with your bow."

These five strings as sympathetic, which means they ring in relation to the sound waves being produced by the other four strings. The resonance adds to constitute a tonal color that's suffused with enchantment, alongside a drone that offers an intoxicating bass.

"The bridge (a piece of wood that supports the strings that's usually curved so each string can be bowed separately) is flat," he continues. "It forces you to play double stops or two strings at the same time at all times."

The purpose of these design features is to give license for the Hardanger fiddle to function as more than one instrument. That's important given how it was originally played: Solo. The Hardanger fiddler would sit in a chair and play along while stomping his foot to mark time. Dancers would surround the musician and do the springar, a couple's dance in an asymmetrical triple meter, and the gangar, a walking dance.

As with all Apollo Chamber Players concert, the group will perform their own arrangements. Scored for string trio and Hardanger fiddle, Anund's Reinlender will couple the soul of the fjords with an orchestral violin, viola and cello. With the inclusion of music by Scandinavian composers, including Grieg's String Quartet in G Minor and Sibelius' String Quartet "Voces Intimae," Apollo Chamber Players hopes the program shows the connection between music of the people and classical repertoire by well-known composers.

In listening to the lilting affect of the Norwegian tune, you can't help sway side to side and tap along the rolling melody. It's safe and mother approved, though. It won't compel you to break out into a rowdy brawl or partake in sacrilegious leisure activities.

It may, however, encourage you to grab a beer with Detrick and his colleagues as it takes a certain easy-going nature to execute this delightful strain.

Watch the CultureMap video (above) to hear the Hardanger fiddle and listen to Detrick and violist Whitney Bullock explain how the program ties together.

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Apollo Chamber Players presents "Scandinavian Spirit" on Sunday, 6 p.m., at Christ the King Lutheran Church. Tickets may be purchased online and are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and $10 for students.

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