A musical journey

February 26, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

Among fiddler/violinist Mark O'Connor's more than two dozen recordings is his 2003 CD - "Mark O'Connor: Thirty-Year Retrospective."

The man is only 42 years old.

His career spans genres as well as years. The list of O'Connor's recordings - including "Pickin' in the Wind" in 1975, 2001's "Hot Swing" and several on classical music labels - show his versatility.

He will perform at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md., at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 29. He will be joined by violist Carol Cook and cellist Natalie Haas.

Together, they are Mark O'Connor's Appalachia Waltz Trio, a chamber ensemble.

They will perform music O'Connor created for his Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey, projects recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer.


O'Connor says his music is American.

"It is so rooted in this ground," he says.

The melting-pot nature of America is unique. "It's the mixture," O'Connor explains. There's no other place on earth that is such a blend of cultures.

For O'Connor, American culture is based on journey. There are trains; there are highways. Europeans crossed the ocean; people made their way west. The inspiration of Southern culture is present, and there is a sense of movement and migration. Along with that comes a sense of longing - the pull of returning to the place of origin. Also, America's wide open spaces are part of its music, O'Connor says. "There's a lot of room in the sky and the land."

There's a lot of room in music for O'Connor - the player and the composer.

He started with the guitar - classical guitar - as a child growing up in Seattle. Encouraged by his teacher, he entered a competition at the University of Washington. Ten years old, he won in the youth and all-age divisions.

A year later, he took up the violin. He landed Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson as a teacher. He excelled on that instrument, as well, and after winning the National Old-Time Fiddlers' Contest a few too many times, was asked not to compete.

When he was 17, he auditioned and won a spot with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. He was hired to play guitar, but also became Grappelli's student and played occasional duets with his teacher. Grappelli was a "hybrid player," O'Connor says. A classically trained violinist who also enjoyed fiddle music, he was a teacher who appreciated both sides of the fence.

At 23, O'Connor headed to Nashville, Tenn., and it didn't take long for him to work his way into being a "first-call" studio player.

At 29, he retired from session work. But other musical doors opened.

His first classical composition was a piece for string quartet commissioned by the Santa Fe Symphony. He had been invited to play two concerts with them as an improvisational musician.

He says the commission gave him the confidence boost he needed - the license to really try.

That quartet led directly into his work with Ma and Meyer, he says.

O'Connor's work and new musical direction has provided a new direction for string players.

The members of his trio - Cook from Scotland and Haas from California - were teenagers when they first heard his music. Haas, 20, was 13 when she attended a concert on O'Connor's first tour with Ma and Meyer.

Fast forward nearly 10 years later, O'Connor says. He met Cook and Haas - by then professional musicians. They started rehearsing together, and he learned that his music is part of their fabric.

"They play like me," he says.

This success - the idea that his music really has an opportunity to "take a footing" - is exciting to O'Connor.

"Each album is an idea," O'Connor says. "I've always been an idea person."

Another O'Connor idea is to teach. He will host his second strings conference in San Diego and his 12th fiddle camp near Nashville, Tenn., this summer, each drawing 200 students. The fiddle camp is sold out, and O'Connor plans a third session in the Northeast in 2005.

The demand is great, but he doesn't want to expand further. He doesn't want to dilute the "sincere personal contact."

Since early 2003, musicians all over the world can come into personal contact with O'Connor's compositions. Downloadable sheet music is available through his Web site at O'Connor likes making his music accessible.

"It's a really liberating feeling," he says.

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