Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Music feature: Violinist O'Connor to play genre-busting recital

Violinist Mark O'Connor.
(Photo by Erica Horn)

By Bill Meredith

Some musicians are so adept at different styles that they get tagged with the phrase "they can play anything." Fewer actually earn the distinction, since most don't get the chance, or even seek, to play every style.

American violinist Mark O'Connor is the exception, since the 48-year-old has practically been there and done all that. He conquered Gypsy jazz and swing while working with iconic French violinist Stephane Grappelli, bluegrass, country and folk music with mandolin master David Grisman, and fusion and instrumental rock with the Dixie Dregs.

That was all before his 21st birthday, and his dexterity practically extended to every stringed instrument. O'Connor was primarily a guitarist with Grappelli, who also schooled him on the nuances of the violin. He played both with Grisman (while picking up tips on the mandolin from the bandleader and Mike Marshall and using them to teach himself), and was a double-threat as both violinist and electric guitarist with the Dregs.

O'Connor has played violin exclusively since 1997, and has since delved into the classical music realm as both a player and composer. His latest release, Americana Symphony, is based on the historic American westward expansion. It features O'Connor performing his compositions and arrangements with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Marin Alsop), and was released on the violinist's own label, OMAC.

Few violinists succeed in the classical world without having studied at a prestigious conservatory, college or university. But ever true to form, O'Connor has a creative take on the schooling he received during the formative years of his late teens and early 20s.

"A lot of musicians can point back to the things they learned during their college years," O'Connor says. "I played with Grappelli, Grisman and the Dregs during what would've been those years, so I can say the same thing. Between Stephane, David and [Dregs guitarist] Steve Morse, I got to learn from some of the greatest improvisers in music.

“I did have a lot of teachers before then, in violin, guitar, voice, theory, percussion and dance. When I was 12, my musical academic schedule probably rivaled most college course loads. I took classical, flamenco, bluegrass and jazz lessons on guitar alone. But I taught myself a lot, too. I was creative, and always very curious."

By mastering everything from exactingly written classical pieces to improvised jazz passages, O'Connor has proven to be an open-minded rarity. On Jan. 31, he’ll get a chance to prove it without a safety net, as he plays a solo violin recital in a Live Arts Florida presentation at Wellington Community High School Theatre.

The Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti has turned the concert into a Haitian relief benefit. Live Arts Florida is donating all parking revenue, and all net ticket and vending proceeds, to the Haitian Relief Fund of the Southeast Diocese of the Episcopal Church. The funds will be used for food, medical supplies and housing for the people of Haiti.

"I've been doing something like this for 20 years," O'Connor said before the show, "and I keep refining and developing it to make it better."

This version included tributes to Grappelli, Nicolo Paganini and Texas folk fiddler Benny Thomasson, arrangements of standards, O'Connor's caprices, and three different sets of improvisations. The violinist also played in a variety of different tunings during what amounted to an around-the-world violin performance.

Now living in the heart of Manhattan, O'Connor has made the east-to-west trek (not to mention the reverse) that his Americana Symphony portrays. He was born in Seattle in 1961, played with Grisman while based in San Francisco, then became a prominent session musician in Nashville. The first in his ongoing series of annual string camps started there while he was teaching at Vanderbilt University from 1993-96, and he added a West Coast camp after moving to San Diego (also since relocated to New York City).

"We did the first camp 16 years ago," O'Connor says, "but that location has since been moved to Johnson City, Tennessee. And we just included New York City [the first camp there occurred last July in Manhattan], which was tremendous. We went over our cut-off number of 200 and got around 250 students.

“It was 270 with all the teachers, and there were lots more in the audience during the concerts we did, so there may have been 300-400 string players total. It may have been the biggest gathering of them, in recent memory, for one event in New York City." By introducing young musicians to Western classical, jazz, American folk and world music -- on equal terms -- O'Connor aims to break down the figurative walls between musical genres.

O'Connor's inaugural string camps formed an educational snowball that has only grown. He's recently been an artist-in-residence at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, and the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami (for the 2009-2010 season).

He's also self-published the first two volumes of the new O'Connor Violin Method books, which will grow to a series of 10 beginner-to-advanced volumes. Distributed by Shar Music, each features sequenced tunes and exercises; theory, history and ear training, and play-along CDs.

The series is subtitled "A New American School of String Playing," and it takes students on string music history lessons through Americana -- including hymns, African-American hoedowns and spirituals, folk songs, ragtime, jigs, reels, ballads and American classical movements. O'Connor plans to expand his violin method books to include viola, cello and double bass.

"These first two books are crucial," he says, "because you have to hook kids or you lose them. They feature American music, but there are also illustrations and history boxes. I started to put this concept together over the years, because there's no reason why you can't learn how to play the violin using American literature, as opposed to European."

"Sometimes it's hard to figure out how to move things along pragmatically," O'Connor continues, "because they're stuck. I feel that's what's happened for hundreds of years with American string playing. There's been all these camps, niches and little corners, and they're all dug in and don't see everything else. And all genres are guilty of that in this country. I grew up in that environment, and it was so frustrating, because I wanted not only to participate in different areas and genres, but wanted to cross-pollinate.

“Grappelli did that beautifully, and when you look at the patriarchs of American music, they did that too. People like Bob Wills, Bill Monroe, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley stirred up new sounds, and energy, by mixing ingredients."

O'Connor has truly come of age as a composer since his 1996 Sony Classical debut Appalachia Waltz, which featured classical icons Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and Edgar Meyer (double bass). Its 2000 offshoot, Appalachian Journey, won a Grammy Award. O'Connor's first full-length orchestral score, The Fiddle Concerto, has been performed more than 200 times, and his 2007 Folk Mass was recorded with the 40-voice Gloriae Dei Cantores choir. He received a commission from 15 symphony orchestras to compose Americana Symphony, which is subtitled "Variations on Appalachia Waltz."

"Getting that symphony on disc was a major achievement," O'Connor says, "and Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony helped to make a beautiful recording of it, for which I'm really thankful. It's a real journey; you can almost feel the crossing of the prairies and the Rocky Mountains in the music. Now I'm hoping that orchestras will decide to program it, and I know that ones in Memphis, Tucson and Kansas City are looking at it.

“The past year has been the busiest I've ever had. I have tons of writing commissions now; probably enough to last me for years. I don't know how I'll get it all done."

The violinist's solo performance in Wellington followed a series of January performances by his Hot Swing band, which honors the World War II-era Hot Club of France band that Grappelli led with guitarist Django Reinhardt. In February, O'Connor's itinerary includes playing his String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 with Ida Kavafian, Paul Neubauer and Matt Haimovitz in Toronto and performing with the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra in Texas. His next CD, to be released in April, is the live Jam Session -- which will feature jazz and bluegrass musicians like Hot Swing guitarist Frank Vignola and Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile.

Clearly, O'Connor practices the educational dexterity he preaches. And having more of an open mind than he does a formal musical education isn't hurting his status at the pulpit.

"It's amazing how many major music schools and conservatories are inviting me not only to perform, but also teach in the past two years," O'Connor says. "I've been invited to the Cleveland Institute of Music, and I think I was the first non-traditional classical string player to give master classes at both Curtis
[Institute of Music in Philadelphia] and Juilliard. Those are interesting breakthroughs, and what it says to me is that there's a developing interest in American string styles.

"Some of the top violin students in the world go to Curtis," adds the burgeoning educator, his voice mixing pride with amazement. "And they were learning my caprices and string quartets."

Call it the dawn of O'Connor's brave new world symphony.

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer based in South Florida who has written extensively on popular music and jazz.

Mark O'Connor
will perform a solo violin recital in the Wellington High School Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31. Tickets: $30-$35 (with various discounts for students, members and seniors). Call 888-841-ARTS or visit www.liveartsfl.org.

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