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Home Across the Range

Fiddler Mark O'Connor has roamed far from his country roots into classical, jazz and even choral music.

July 29, 2001|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

VISTA, Calif. — A lazy summer afternoon, and a conversation with a fiddler back home on the farm. Sounds relaxing enough, but pay attention. Don't let the sun on the avocado trees or the eloquently spun lilt of a fiddle tune prove too lulling--information overload is a real risk here.

The discussion darts among topics: the possible Turkish origin of distinctly Appalachian music, country-music politics, Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun's way with a chorus, the Kobe-Shaq Laker dynamic and the best approach to violin pedagogy.

The fiddler, obviously and uniquely, must be Mark O'Connor.

O'Connor, 39, is one of the world's truly great improvisers, and for the last decade he has been playing increasingly complex riffs on his career, transforming himself from a country-pop sideman, band member and soloist into a classical-crossover-roots-jazz -et undefinable cetera composer. Probably the best-known step on this journey was "Appalachia Waltz," a crossover collaboration with superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma and composer-bassist Edgar Meyer that dominated the classical charts in 1996.

Right now, he has a gaggle of wildly varied concerts, CDs and other projects working. The release of his first classical choral composition on CD is imminent. A swing tribute to his mentor, the late jazz great Stephane Grappelli, is already out. He will play three times--in programs emphasizing classical music and jazz--as a composer in residence at the Summerfest chamber music festival in La Jolla starting this week.

He's also the host of his first West Coast fiddle conference, and will begin a national tour with Metamorphosen, the New York-based chamber orchestra, in support of the September release of "American Seasons." The recording featuring his new concerto draws inspiration from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and Shakespeare's ages of man imagery from "As You Like It."

"Ten years ago, when somebody like Yo-Yo Ma did duets with somebody like Bobby McFerrin, it was completely crossover, something you did just for fun and then came back to the main stuff," O'Connor says. "Now, it is the main stuff, bringing things together in a very sophisticated, classical way.

"This is an engine of thought that has helped me in my own journey. What I say doesn't sound as outlandish anymore. Now it seems very familiar, almost foundational." O'Connor's journey includes a literal as well as figurative trek. About three years ago, he left the heartland of country music, Nashville, for the anything-goes West Coast. He moved with his wife and two school-age sons from Tennessee to a hilltop avocado ranch here with plenty of room for his wife's horses and an expansive studio for him. A manager oversees the ranch, and the 5,000 pounds of avocados just harvested keep the whole place watered, if not much more.

It is tempting to see O'Connor's geographical shift as a symbol of his journey away from commercial country-pop to a more unfettered, holistic personal music. And when he takes down his beloved white fiddle and plays a tune full of his characteristic wistful lilt, the sense of cultural disaffection and regret is made audible.

A relic of his wunderkind years (O'Connor won the national fiddle championship so many times as a teen that he was asked to stop competing), it is autographed by 24 of his heroes, from mentor and Texas swing paragon Benny Thomasson to the classical virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. This violin has an implausibly big and warm tone for an instrument with the varnish replaced by a generous coat of white enamel paint. For 15 years it hung in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

"The hall of fame moved into a new building last winter," O'Connor says, "with almost four times as much space, but no room anymore for my white fiddle. It made me so sad. I said, if it is just going to be tucked away in a vault somewhere, then I want my fiddle back.

"It could have had something to do with turning in my Country Music Assn. membership last year, when they didn't put the instrumentalist of the year award on the televised show. I had campaigned so hard for that and finally got it. Now it is gone again. It was very frustrating."

O'Connor believes his fall from Nashville grace came not so much from what he was doing with his continually wider-ranging stylistic forays as with what he was not doing: the high-profile session work he had done on 450 albums in the '80s. He counts the decision to skip a triple-scale session on a Kenny Rogers project in favor of doing an interview with a small paper about his own music as a major step on his journey.

"Silly me--I thought that if I quit doing session work, the fact that I maintained my fiddle camps in the area and that I taught fiddle classes at Vanderbilt University would keep me in the community. I lobbied hard for a regular instrumental spot on the Grand Ole Opry but wasn't able to get that. They are so conservative."

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