Monday, February 1, 2010

Music review: O'Connor dazzles in Wellington show

Violinist Mark O'Connor.

By Bill Meredith

Forty-eight-year-old violinist Mark O'Connor already has a 35-year recording career covering almost every style of music.

And he drew upon all of his experience -- starting out as a guitarist in legendary French violinist Stephane Grappelli's swing band, working with iconic bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman, doubling on violin and electric guitar with jazz/fusion heavyweights the Dixie Dregs, and his current solo classical career -- to perform an unaccompanied solo violin recital at Wellington Community High School Theatre on Sunday night.

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

After the show, which benefited the Haitian Relief Fund of the Southeast Diocese of the Episcopal Church to help the Jan. 12 earthquake survivors, it was difficult to imagine how the violinist could possibly do better.

O'Connor strolled onto the stage, unamplified and unannounced, and launched into a flurry of notes to introduce Call of the Mockingbird. The piece was written to commemorate the Tennessee bicentennial in 1996, when O'Connor was a Nashville resident, and its unorthodox mix of bluegrass, classical and folk styles set the tone for the entire concert.

With his bowing speed and use of double-stops (playing two strings at once) wowing the modest crowd of about 200, O'Connor also proved that possessing lightning technique doesn't always mean having to display it. A case in point was his arrangement of Amazing Grace, played in an alternate tuning similar to the one he used to record the standard with soprano Renée Fleming.

O'Connor's intro featured long, slow and often slurred notes, played with dramatic effect. A faster midsection included the violinist alternating between every string to achieve a percussive rhythm before he returned to the timeless melody.

"That's pretty good news about the Grammy situation," O'Connor said, perhaps having just heard about Journey to the New World, the CD by classical guitarist Sharon Ibsin that featured the violinist. The disc won for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (Without Orchestra) on Sunday night.

O'Connor then played some of the violin caprices he'd started composing while a Nashville session musician. The first was inspired by the 19th-century Italian violinist Nicolo Paganini and O'Connor's speed, rhythm, use of arpeggios and sometimes abrasive notes showed why some listeners thought the Italian's mastery of the instrument had to be the result of a deal with the devil.

O'Connor's wizardry may partially be the result of his expertise on other instruments. The bowing showcase Caprice No. 4 in D Major was inspired by the cross-picking technique he learned through playing mandolin. Just before intermission, the violinist displayed a picked three-finger pizzicato, with bow in hand, that showed off his guitar training.

An excerpt from O'Connor's 1996 CD Appalachia Waltz downshifted to show the joy in his ballad playing. The tranquil, atmospheric intro led to a display of vibrato through O'Connor's incredible left hand (which is equal to his liquid bowing hand). All violinists use each finger on their fretting hand, but few use their pinkie finger to achieve such stratospheric notes on the high E string.

Three improvisations showed O'Connor's scope of ideas. The first was a variation of Miss Sally Goodwin, the public domain piece featured on his 1988 album Elysian Forest. Dedicated to Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, the performance was a mix of bluegrass, Irish and country influences.

The second, dedicated to Grappelli, opened with a pizzicato section in which O'Connor alternately plucked and strummed to achieve mandolin and ukulele sounds before closing with a bowed mix of blues and Gypsy swing. On the free-form third improvisation, O'Connor went from Irish jig to funk and Cajun to folk feels, all while making his unamplified acoustic violin sound effects-laden.

The encore of America the Beautiful echoed the sentiment of O'Connor's latest recording, Americana Symphony, an album with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that portrays the historic American westward expansion. It was a fitting close to the solo violin concert -- the kind of performance that's perhaps unthinkable for anyone other than the modern-day Paganini.

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

The Tannahill Weavers, a veteran Scottish band specializing in traditional Celtic music, appears Sunday, Feb. 14, in the next Live Arts Florida show. The concert at the Wellington Community High School Theatre begins at 7: 30 p.m. Tickets: $25-30. Call 1-888-841-ARTS or visit

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