March 30, 2009
Mark O’Connor’s name has appeared in The Stream previously; in my blog about Yo Yo Ma, I mentioned that, on four occasions, Ma has contributed to the classical/“bluegrass” crossover genre with noted fiddler/composer Mark O’Connor and eclectic bassist/composer Edgar Meyer: 1996’s Appalachia Waltz; 2000’s Appalachian Journey, with Stephen Foster, Alison Krauss, and James Taylor (both in the studio and live in concert on DVD); and 2001’s Heartland: An Appalachian Anthology, with Bela Fleck, Mike Marshall, John Jarvis, and others. I turn our spotlight on O’Connor directly at this time because he was the subject of a feature article by Randy Lewis in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, March 15, 2009 entitled “A genre fiddler: Mark O’Connor dares to mix American pop and folk with classical.”
O’Connor was in town to conduct a master class for UCLA music students, three of whom (a violinist, a cellist, and a pianist) were working their way through his Piano Trio No. 1, commissioned and recorded by The Eroica Trio, one of chamber music’s premier ensembles. O’Connor has been on a roll: over the past two decades, he has in addition composed six concertos, three string quartets, six caprices, and other works for solo violin, above and beyond his signature “Appalachia Waltz.” Tuesday, March 10, 2009 marked the release date for the world première recording of his most ambitious work to date, the six-movement Americana Symphony, played by the Baltimore Symphony under the direction of Marin Alsop. The work, subtitled “Variations on Appalachia Waltz,” according to Lewis, is as “unrepentantly tonal, accessibly melodic, and sonically spacious as a great Elmer Bernstein film score. As in most of his work, themes develop, mutate and transform with complex passage work that often incorporates bent notes or pulsing rhythms drawn from jazz, country, folk and blues sources.”
What specifically is O’Connor’s jazz connection? Well, after studying as a teen with Texas Fiddle champion Benny Thomasson, O’Connor served an apprenticeship with legendary jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, founder in 1934 of the Quintette du Hot Club de France with co-founder, long-time partner, and fabled Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. For at least the past two decades O’Connor has focused on composing and performing music that arguably bridges disparate genres even more intentionally and forthrightly than did that of Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Leonard Bernstein.
UCLA has organized and implemented the Herb Alpert School of Music, a new cross-disciplinary institution developed with just that purpose in mind, and O’Connor has been named as its first artist-in-residence. “This school is founded on the idea that there is a universe of music, and within that universe there are different galaxies of classical music, world music, jazz and folk,” said Alpert director Tim Rice. “We’re sending out these shuttles that move from one galaxy to the other. Mark is the very embodiment of that idea.” For his part, O’Connor says, “I think there’s a real possibility that a nationalistic American classical music could really start to take hold.”
“I want to use jazz and blues and other vernacular music as the language on which classical compositions are built,” O’Connor continues. “It’s the same thing [Astor] Piazzolla did in his native Argentina, what Bartók did in Hungary, and what Tan Dun is doing in China. It’s not a new concept. It’s just new in American classical circles. It’s so funny—it reveals some people’s idea that our cultural musical heritage is somehow not important enough.”
Lewis writes, “O’Connor’s passion for history, including this country’s cultural past and his own family’s journey, surfaces regularly in conversation. His mother’s ancestors came from Holland to New York in the early 17th century—‘before Jamestown,’ he said—migrated south in the 19th century, and then settled in the Pacific Northwest. He essentially has followed that path in reverse, now residing in Manhattan.”
After studying classical guitar as a boy in Seattle, O’Connor was entranced by the sounds of country music. He began recording as a teenager and, after graduating from high school, he moved to Nashville, where he proved, as he says, “that a fiddle could play alongside a DX7 [synthesizer], a rock guitar, or a Fender Rhodes [electric piano].” He did well in Nashville (the Country Music Association voted him its Musician of the Year for six years running, 1991 to 1996), and he could easily have continued to free-lance there indefinitely, but he needed opportunities to flex his creative muscles.
“I wrote the first caprice 22 years ago,” he says, “between recording sessions. I’d had the beginnings of a new fiddle concerto and decided it was time to quit the session work and go on a solo career based on this principle of combining jazz and folk and classical music. A lot of people thought I was nuts for putting a career behind me in favor of one that could maybe pay half my rent. But other things I might have done weren’t terribly meaningful.”
O’Connor has been preaching the gospel of a borderless music in summer camps he has led in Nashville for 15 years and, starting in July, in Los Angeles and New York City. Publication this month of his Mark O’Connor Violin Method, which is rooted in American music, is another way in which he is moving his mission forward.
Working with the UCLA master class has been a positive experience for O’Connor; he is beginning to see evidence of a change in music education, a greater receptivity to the ideas he’s been promoting. In the iPod age, music enthusiasts can access and explore more different styles of music than ever before, and as a result, they are less likely to limit themselves to one single genre. “I was impressed at how students were able to access what I wanted off the page,” he said. “When Yo Yo Ma first expressed interest in my music, he said, ‘I can’t see your music in the notes, I have to hear you playing it.’ And I thought, ‘Boy, this is going to be a problem if this won’t exist outside of me playing it!’”
“What Mark and a few other people are doing is hearkening back to an older definition of what it means to be a well-rounded musician,” says David Wallace, a violist and faculty member at the Juilliard School in New York. “Music pedagogy in the 20th century became a science and became very specialized. To be a musician in Bach and Haydn and Mozart’s day meant that you were fluent in multiple instruments, fluent in multiple national styles. They were also able to improvise, ornament and embellish, and they were trained in composition and theory. In a way, what’s starting to happen now is that all these elements are being brought back.”
Those kinds of changes are exactly what O’Connor has in mind. “The biggest part of the last decade, as far as my career [is concerned], was about my performances, my playing, my music,” he said. “Now in my life it’s more about what this music means to other musicians. It’s becoming less about my performances as an artist and maybe more about being in a leadership position to steer in new ideas and bring new material for people to try out. It’s a really, really gratifying development.”