New Classical Tracks: Mark O'Connor, fiddler and composer

Americana Symphony "Variations on Appalachia Waltz
Mark O'Connor -- Americana Symphony "Variations on Appalachia Waltz"; Violin Concerto No. 6 "Old Brass" -- Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop/Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, Joel Smirnoff.
Photo courtesy the label

Twenty-five years ago, Mark O'Connor, the talented Texas fiddler, jazz artist and bluegrass musician, returned to his classical roots. That's when he composed his first fiddle concerto.

O'Connor is ecstatic about his latest release which features a new violin concerto -- his sixth -- and his first full symphony.

"One of the fabulous things about my new recording is that I got to work with two of the top conductors out there," said O'Connor. "They both happen to be violinists, and so they keep pace with me right from the start. They really identify with my music and my style, and also my violin playing. I was so happy to have them both here on this CD."

The conductor for O'Connor's new concerto is Joel Smirnoff, first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, here leading the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra.

O'Connor gathered ideas for the new concerto after spending a full day in South Carolina at a plantation rich in tradition, and artistic importance.

"So I created the themes of my Old Brass concerto right there, that day. And I named it after a character that was on the grounds during the building of the plantation during the '30s," said O'Connor. "His nickname was Old Brass; he was from the Brass Ankles tribe. These tribes are collections of people, not indigenous Indian tribes. I think they really helped to develop the American music culture a number of years ago."

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The plantation itself was designed by no less than Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright's design was based on the number six, including the hexagonal building and windows.

O'Connor decided to capitalize on that "spirit of six" for his Sixth Concerto, by utilizing elements such as six-note phrases and different meters in six.

We hear how these rich, multi-layered ideas come together in the second movement of his concerto titled "Spanish Moss, Black Water." I asked O'Connor to explain the visual images behind this movement.

"I came from the Northwest, and the water tends to be rushing and billowing over rocks and waterfalls and so forth. And some of the water of the lakes in this part of the country are sometimes dark and murky looking, sometimes grey or black," said O'Connor.

"And it was the case of this body of water out in back at this plantation in South Carolina. I was there the whole day and sat down by this body of water, and I started looking at it more deeply. And it became beautiful to me.

"And I started to look at the reflections of the water and the Spanish moss in this black water. And I created this kind of mysterious body of movement and culture and development, this interface with nature. I called the movement 'Black Water' for that reason."

O'Connor could have written a seventh violin concerto, but then he shifted gears and decided to write a set of variations based on one of his most popular works. O'Connor explains how those variations became his first symphony.

"I had this theme idea -- my own theme, 'Appalachia Waltz.' I always felt like it could be absolutely expansive. I had written it as a very intimate piece 15 years ago, and of course later showed it to Yo-Yo Ma and he helped me bring that to Sony Classical and to the music world. It's probably my best-known piece," said O'Connor. "I felt like that piece helped me describe Americana, and the journey and discovery of the wide-open spaces, and how the musical language came out of the stir-fry of American culture."

O'Connor twists and turns that theme into everything from a hoedown to a centuries-old fugue. The moving fifth movement is based on yet another form with roots in the Baroque era.

"The fifth movement, 'Soaring Eagle Setting Sun,' is a canon. That's one long crescendo starting very low and soft in the basses, and as it builds and heads toward the climax of the movement you can imagine climbing the face of the Rocky Mountains, and the exultation that must have been felt when finally reaching the top."

The symphony is played by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by another violinist conductor, Marin Alsop, who was the conductor of O'Connor's first orchestral recording 15 years ago.

During his musical sojourn as a composer, Mark O'Connor has discovered that all of his pieces, including his new symphony, embody a similar kind of American optimism.

"The symphony easily describes the westward journey. Coming out of Appalachia, or the Eastern Seaboard, and discovering a new day, a better tomorrow. It's the same kind of sentiment that Americans hold dear even to this day," said O'Connor. "We all leave our homes and try to discover a new life for us to lead, and one, hopefully, that could even be better than our parents had. And we believe in that optimism, and that really is the driving force behind the Americana Symphony."

For more than 400 years there was little cross-pollination between classical violin playing and American fiddling. That's where Mark O'Connor comes in.

He's helped bridge that historic gap by establishing a whole new musical style on the violin, and by composing works like his new "Americana Symphony" and his "Old Brass" concerto, which enhance the flavor of American classical music.