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Mark O'Connor, genre fiddler

The violinist-cellist-pianist's latest work, 'Americana Symphony,' is as multifaceted as his performing skills, blending classical with home-grown folk and pop.

March 15, 2009|Randy Lewis

Mark O'Connor sat in the small theater at UCLA as three earnest young music students -- a violinist, a cellist and a pianist -- determinedly worked through one movement of his Piano Trio No. 1, a piece commissioned and recorded by the Eroica Trio, one of chamber music's stellar ensembles. Once they finished, O'Connor walked onstage, complimented their performance and picked up his violin to demonstrate a few pointers on tempo, technique and playing style.

"At letter G," the violinist-composer said, as his charges quickly flipped pages to find that spot in the score, "this section emulates the Johnny Cash guitar strum where he goes up the neck." He mimicked the Man in Black's signature chick-chicka-chick strumming style and then mentioned how Cash's late-career performance of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" had introduced the veteran artist to a new generation of fans shortly before his death in 2003.

"Go to YouTube," he suggested, "and watch the video of him singing it. It's a very effective performance. Hearing and seeing him play that song will help you play this part."

Over the last two decades, O'Connor has built an imposing repertoire of his own compositions, including his piano trio "Poets and Prophets," inspired by Cash's life and music. Among other pieces of music, he's written six concertos, three string quartets, six caprices and other works for solo violin (among them his signature "Appalachia Waltz"). The world premiere recording of what might be his most ambitious work yet, the six-movement "Americana Symphony" as played by the Baltimore Symphony under conductor Marin Alsop, will be released Tuesday on O'Connor's own Omac record label.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Mark O'Connor: An article in Sunday's Arts & Music section about violinist-composer Mark O'Connor described one of his mentors as "Gypsy jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli." Grappelli was a French violinist who partnered with Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt to help create what became known as Gypsy jazz.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 22, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Mark O'Connor: An article last Sunday about violinist-composer Mark O'Connor described one of his mentors as "Gypsy jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli." Grappelli was a French violinist who partnered with Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt to help create what became known as Gypsy jazz.

For the last two decades, the 47-year-old artist, who studied as a teen with Texas fiddle champion Benny Thomasson and then apprenticed under fabled Gypsy jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, has concentrated on writing and performing music that bridges disparate genres. His aim? To blend classical with American folk and popular music more fully than he believes occurred even in the celebrated works of Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein.

"I think there's a real possibility that a nationalistic American classical music could really start to take hold," O'Connor said during a recent interview at a coffeehouse near UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music, the new cross-disciplinary institution that tapped him this year as its first artist-in-residence.

"This school is founded on the idea that there is a universe of music, and within that universe there are different galaxies of classical music, world music, jazz and folk," said Alpert director Tim Rice. "We're sending out these shuttles that move from one galaxy to the other. Mark is the very embodiment of that idea."

O'Connor's "Americana Symphony," subtitled "Variations on Appalachia Waltz," is as unrepentantly tonal, accessibly melodic and sonically spacious as a great Elmer Bernstein film score. As in most of his work, themes develop, mutate and transform with complex passage work that often incorporates bent notes or pulsing rhythms drawn from jazz, country, folk and blues sources.

"I want to use jazz and blues and other vernacular music as the language on which classical compositions are built," O'Connor said. "It's the same thing [Astor] Piazzolla did in his native Argentina, what Bartok did in Hungary and what Tan Dun is doing in China. It's not a new concept. It's just new in American classical circles. It's so funny -- it reveals some people's idea that our cultural musical heritage is somehow not important enough."

O'Connor's passion for history, including this country's cultural past and his own family's journey, surfaces regularly in conversation. His mother's ancestors came from Holland to New York in the early 17th century -- "before Jamestown," he said -- migrated south in the 19th century and then settled in the Pacific Northwest. He essentially has followed that path in reverse, now residing in Manhattan.

As a boy in Seattle, O'Connor studied classical guitar, at the same time being captivated by the sounds of country music. After seeing Doug Kershaw play Cajun-style fiddle on Cash's late-'60s TV show, he asked his parents to buy him one. He considers himself blessed to have connected with Thomasson, who had relocated to Seattle in the '70s after dominating fiddling competitions in the Lone Star State for nearly two decades.

O'Connor began making records as a teen and moved to Nashville not long after graduating from high school. That was during the "Urban Cowboy" pop-crossover craze of the early-'80s, a time when a Nashville music executive famously circulated a memo stipulating "no steel guitars" on any of the label's recordings. It was the same story for the old-time fiddle.

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