Pickers' Paradise: From Balkans to Bluegrass

Two dazzling, viruosic string ensembles

The cross-cultural musical sparks will fly and the jams will sizzle when these artists meet and trade licks on stage.

Bluegrass and tamburitza music are two dazzling, virtuosic string ensemble traditions with deep roots in American communities. Though these two distinctive styles emerged out of very different cultural communities—one is rooted in urban/industrial immigrant culture, while the other was born in the uplands of the American South—they have much in common, so much so, in fact, that tamburitza has been hailed as the bluegrass of the Balkans.

Pickers’ Paradise features two groups, Tamburaški Sastav Ponoć from Pittsburgh and Danny Knicely’s Next Generation from the Shenandoah Valley, with some of the finest young musicians carrying these traditions into the 21st century.

Tamburaški Sastav Ponoć - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Tamburaški Sastav Ponoć represents a new generation of brilliant players of tamburitza music, the traditional string band music of the Balkans. Tamburitza music has flourished for over a century in ethnic communities across the industrial Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest, where Eastern European immigrants flocked to work in the region’s factories and mines. Until recently, it has had limited exposure beyond these communities. But that is changing as this cadre of virtuosic young musicians bring tamburitza out of neighborhood taverns and community halls and onto concert stages across America and the world.

Tamburitza instruments have been played in the Balkans for at least 500 years. The five primary ones are the prim, brač, čelo, bugarija, and berda, all fretted, steel-stringed acoustic instruments in the lute family, as are mandolins and guitars. The smallest of them, the prim, is a soprano instrument employed primarily for melody or harmony. Next is the brač, an alto-voiced instrument twice as large as the prim that is used for melody, harmony, or counterpoint. The čelo plays counter melody. Unlike an orchestral cello, it is held like a guitar and picked rather than bowed. The bugarija (or kontra) is similar to the čelo in size and design; it provides rhythmic chording. The berda is a fretted bass and, like the čelo, played with a pick rather than a bow.

The members of Ponoć (“midnight”) grew up surrounded by Eastern European culture, Peter Kosovec in Detroit and Mark Stafura, Ben Wagner, Nikola Vranesevic, and John Huckle in the Pittsburgh area. Peter, Mark, Ben, and Nikola come from families heavily involved with maintaining Balkan music and dance traditions in their communities. Peter released his first solo album by age 17, cementing his place as one of the finest young primaši of the tradition. Mark’s father was the longtime director of the famed Duquesne University Tamburitzans (DUT). John was a latecomer to tamburitza, joining the Junior Tamburitzans of Duquesne at age 16, but he was already an accomplished jazz trumpeter. The five musicians met when performing with DUT during their college years in Pittsburgh. They all now make their homes there and are respected performers and teachers of the tradition. Peter, Mark, Ben, and Nikola have all been honored with the Lou Cavic Founder’s Award, presented by the Tamburitza Association of America to a young person who demonstrates an outstanding devotion to the preservation of tamburitza music and Slavic culture.

While in DUT, the members of Ponoć studied multiple instruments in the tamburitza family; in this sastav (“ensemble”) audiences will see Peter on prim, Ivan and Mark on first and second brač, Ben on kontra, and Nikola on berda. The ensemble’s repertoire focuses primarily on music from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. However, in their performances they also draw on Gypsy, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, and Italian influences.


Danny Knicely’s Next Generation - Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley has long been fertile ground for the development of old-time and bluegrass music, and the Knicelys are one of its most prominent musical families. Multi-instrumentalist A. O. Knicely was a staple at area barn dances in the 1930s; his son Glen soaked up this music as a child and, along with his wife, Darlena, passed on the tradition to his son, Danny.

Danny Knicely has become one of the most respected and versatile multi-instrumentalists of his generation, collaborating with prominent musicians in the United States and abroad. He has won many awards for his mandolin, guitar, and fiddle playing, and flatfoot dancing, including first place in the mandolin contest at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

Danny is also the musical director for the Mountain Music Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving traditional musicians worldwide. A musician’s musician, Danny has a chameleon-like ability to fit into any musical situation. He has recorded and toured nationally and internationally with many groups, from Vassar Clements to Cheick Hamala Diabate.

Danny is sharing his knowledge with a new generation of young bluegrass musicians. These amazing teenagers and twenty-somethings have already left their mark on the music, with countless contest winnings on their respective instruments. These young virtuosos uphold age-old traditions and thoughtfully sculpt them for the future.

Andrew Vogts took up the violin at age four and now attends the prestigious Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington, Delaware. While continuing his classical studies and playing many other types of music including bluegrass, Cajun, jazz, and Celtic, Andrew mostly focuses on Appalachian old-time music. He’s been awarded prizes at countless fiddling contest and has played in all 50 states. Andrew has also visited more than 35 foreign countries performing with the renowned fiddle group Barrage. Andrew’s fiddling can be heard on his self-titled debut album released on the Patuxent Music label.

Victor Furtado’s precocious talent and understanding of old-time music is at odds with his age. The Front Royal native has won first place in the adult clawhammer banjo category at many contests including the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention; Clifftop; Appalachian State University Fiddler’s Convention; Maury River Fiddler’s Convention; Elk Creek Fiddler’s Convention; Deer Creek Fiddler’s Convention; and the Virginia State Fair. Victor is also the Delaware State Banjo Champion and placed second in the National Old Time Banjo Championship in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, at age 15. Victor can be heard on his self-titled album also on the Patuxent Music label, and he is now studying at the Berklee College of Music.

Aila Wildman of Floyd, Virginia, began studying the violin, both classical and traditional styles, at the age of five. At eight she joined Floyd Music School’s youth bluegrass band The Blackberries, and, at 11, she became one of the youngest members of the Roanoke Youth Symphony Orchestra (RYSO). Aila has twice participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, first apprenticing with the late, legendary bluegrass fiddler Buddy Pendleton, and currently with contemporary fiddle master Nate Leath. Though barely a teenager, Aila is now placing regularly in the most prestigious fiddle contests, and is lead singer and fiddler for her family band, The Wildmans, as well as playing in the RYSO’s first violin section.

Eli Wildman of Floyd, Virginia, began playing guitar at age seven, switching to mandolin soon after attending his first Galax Fiddler’s Convention. Seven years later, in 2015, Eli won first place youth mandolin and eighth place in the adult mandolin competition at Galax. Having studied both classical and traditional music at the Floyd Music School, Eli is as comfortable playing a Bach Concerto as bluegrass and old-time music. He is also continuing his studies at the Berklee College of Music.

Jack Dunlap of Lorton, Virginia, is the mandolin player in the bluegrass band Bud’s Collective. In 2014 and 2015, he apprenticed with Danny Knicely in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program and together he and Danny recorded Chop, Shred, and Split, an award-winning album featuring original compositions and an eclectic mix of songs that range from bluegrass, old-time, gypsy jazz, and swing to polka and funk. This album is tangible proof of the magic generated by their apprenticeship. Jack teaches mandolin, bass, guitar, and ukelele at Blue Ridge Community College, the Front Porch, and Divinum Auxilium Academy.


Saturday 6/22/2019
In Advance: $20
At Door: $25
Support for Pickers' Paradise

This engagement of Pickers' Paradise is made possible through the Folk and Traditional Arts Touring Network program of Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation in collaboration with the National Council for the Traditional Arts with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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