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Three for the Road

An unlikely trio reconvenes for a tour of North America, Europe and Asia. Whatever their music is, don't call it 'crossover.'

March 19, 2000|JEREMY EICHLER | Jeremy Eichler is a New York-based arts and culture writer

Just as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Mark O'Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer were finishing recording what would become their popular 1996 American folk-inspired album "Appalachia Waltz," the three players looked at one another and said, "Let's do this again."

And why not? Having already performed numerous concerts together, the trio had taken a liking to their new collaboration--and their quest for a new middle ground between classical, country, folk music and traditional Anglo-Celtic fiddling styles. The threesome's hunch that they had hit on something good was confirmed by the American record-buying public, which purchased more than 250,000 units (a very strong showing by classical standards) and kept "Appalachia Waltz" on the Billboard classical charts for 98 weeks.

So last summer, after more than three years spent in their separate artistic universes, the Appalachian troika went back into the studio, again for Sony Classical, to record a sequel album called "Appalachian Journey." In record stores this week, the new release will be accompanied by a three-continent tour, which stops at UCLA's Royce Hall on April 1.

And while Ma, Meyer and O'Connor are proud of the first album they made together, they're adamant that the new one has a reason for being beyond just repeating a winning formula.

"If the first thing was successful, any sequel almost always falls flat unless it's individually motivated outside of whatever came before," Ma said after a recent radio taping with his two colleagues at the Right Track recording studio in New York. O'Connor added, "The first time we were shooting in the dark on some of this stuff. This time we really knew what we were writing for, and you can hear it in some of the results."

Like its predecessor, "Appalachian Journey" consists mostly of original music composed by O'Connor and Meyer. The style of many of the pieces is heavily influenced by Copland's Americana period, during which he wrote famous works based on folk material such as "Billy the Kid" (1938) and "Rodeo" (1942). Some tracks on "Appalachian Journey" sound like traditional reels or waltzes, while others like "Duet for Cello and Bass" and "Vistas" have a more classical sensibility. Still others, like "Indecision," spotlight the violin over a funk-style bass accompaniment. The new album also includes cameo appearances by folk legend James Taylor as well as fiddle player and vocalist Alison Krauss. Even with all its variety, the overriding tone suggests chamber music more than it does a fiddling contest or a romping country band.

*

From the outset, the three players were an unlikely combination. Ma brings to the group clear celebrity status. He has earned a reputation for his musical curiosity across genres. Fundamentally, however, he is a classical player deeply grounded in that milieu and, by his own admission, has had to work hard to pick up fiddling styles. These styles do overlap with classical, since traditional fiddling has a distant ancestor in Baroque violin, but the music also contains a unique rhythmic complexity as well as a specific vocabulary of ornamentation that Ma has had to learn from scratch.

The cellist has clearly taken to the project and even integrated some of the material into his general repertory, going as far as transcribing a solo arrangement of "Appalachia Waltz's" title track, performing it in recital and recording it on a recent disc of contemporary music for unaccompanied cello. Ma seems to see himself as a pioneer of sorts, breaking ground in a new genre for his instrument.

"Even within the classical tradition, the cello as a solo instrument developed relatively late," he said. "When Brahms heard Dvorak's cello concerto, he apparently remarked, 'How come I didn't know the cello could sound like that?' " Now many listeners are no doubt saying the same thing about Ma's fiddling.

Meyer is the group's switch hitter, having built a career that straddles Nashville and Lincoln Center, collaborating with progressive bluegrass artists such as Sam Bush and Bela Fleck, but also with classical players such as the Emerson String Quartet. He has composed about one-third of the pieces on the new album, which he hopes will help bridge the "chasm between classical music and other very active and interesting forms of music."

In Meyer's eyes, the classical establishment suffers from what he calls a "sense-of-greatness syndrome," in which music gets associated only with great works of historic merit and many present-day players are too intimidated by that tradition to experiment with composing themselves. "You don't want to besmirch it all by writing a little ditty," he said.

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