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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

By Isabel Braverman
April 16, 2014

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.”