Young violinist has fond memories of fiddling in the Midwest

News-DemocratApril 9, 2014 

Liesl Schoenberger plays violin with a chamber orchestra on big stages in Boston and across the country.

But the Cape Girardeau, Mo., native has fond memories of fiddling as a girl in the Midwest. She won George's Portz's Fiddle Contest and Bluegrass Show at the O'Fallon Knights of Columbus Hall in 2000 and 2002.

"I remember going downstairs, and there would be all these people jamming," said Schoenberger, 30, of Boston. "It was so loud. And even when you went outside, there would be jamming on the sidewalk."

Jamming still takes place in the basement while crowds watch fiddlers compete for trophies and prize money and other acts perform upstairs.

This year's show will begin at 5 p.m. Saturday with former Illinois state harmonica champion Matt McElroy, followed by the Thunder and Lightning Cloggers.

George Portz and his Friends of Bluegrass will take the stage at 8:30 p.m. with a guest appearance by country singer Brenda Cook.

"(Portz) puts on a good show," said retiree Marlin Simmons, 84, of Belleville, who comes every year. "It heals you. If you have anything wrong with you, it will heal your body, mind and soul."

This is the 35th year for the contest, which Portz started to give bluegrass musicians a place to perform in the St. Louis area. An average 20 fiddlers compete in junior and open divisions each year.

Portz plays up the fact that some former contestants, including Grammy Award winner Alison Krauss, have gone on to successful careers in the music business.

"You never know who's going to walk through that door," said Portz, 61, of Shiloh, a former national open fiddle champion. "We don't have any advance registration. That's what makes it interesting."

Schoenberger started playing violin at 9. She was a crowd favorite at the fiddling contest with her bright smile and black derby.

Schoenberger is one of 17 former contestants who have gone on to perform at the Grand Ol' Opry in Nashville.

"I'm still pinching myself that I got to play on that awesome stage," she said. "It's so incredibly legendary. It's the heart and home of all country music. And the audience is so supportive. They gave me a standing ovation."

Schoenberger later earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music at Indiana University and an artist diploma at Yale University.

Today, she is completing her doctorate in music at New England Conservatory, working as a violin instructor at University of New Hampshire and performing with the Boston-based chamber orchestra A Far Cry.

Schoenberger is engaged to be married in October to a bass player who sometimes substitutes for the orchestra.

"I'm doing more classical than fiddling these days," she said. "But it's still a big part of my artistic makeup for sure."

Portz describes the O'Fallon fiddle contest as "almost like a homecoming" because many musicians and spectators return year after year.

Simmons can't remember the last time he missed a contest. Not only does he enjoy the music, he likes the people who play fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin.

"You can talk to any of them and you've got a friend," he said. "They're friendly people. That's what bluegrass is all about."

At a glance

What: George Portz's 35th Annual Fiddle Contest and Bluegrass Show

Where: O'Fallon Knights of Columbus Hall, U.S. 50, across from O'Fallon City Park

When: 5 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $7 for adults and $3.50 for children

Refreshments: Dinners, sandwiches and desserts available for purchase

Information: Call 632-1384 or email georgeportz1@gmail.com

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