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February 19, 2014IM -
Over the course of the string camps, O’Connor sees growth in the musicians as their different musical styles influence each other and meld together. This actually reflects O’Connor’s own compositions, through which he strives to finally define an American style of classical music. “All of us feel like American music should be this or that, and I finally found out, through my creative process, that the entirety of it is American music,” he says. “The secret and the magic lie in the coming together of peoples from all over the world.”
Of course, the concept is not an entirely new one. In the late 19th century, Czech composer Antonín Dvorák was recruited to come to the US and help develop an American compositional style. Exploring America’s musical resources, he incorporated Native-American and African-American influences into his New World Symphony, among other pieces. But the key words here are “Czech composer.”
“For a long time, America has been referring to Europe as the ivory tower, the cultural elite,” says O’Connor. “I think that, for centuries, European composers wondered why that was. They were thinking, you have everything you need over there!”
O’Connor took that advice to heart. Rather than emulating the European model, he decided to use what America already had.
At 17 years old, O’Connor was exposed to music from all across the country when he was invited to tour with fiddle and jazz violin great Stéphane Grappelli . He also studied under Benny Thomasson. By that time, the teenage virtuoso already had an impressive résumé; he had dominated numerous fiddling competitions and even had a few albums under his belt, which were released under a label that his parents created for him. Adding the mentorship of Thomasson and Grappelli to that list, O’Connor had no problem finding work as a studio musician when he moved to fiddling hot spot, Nashville, Tennessee.
Along with his undeniable talent, the AFM also played a part in O’Connor’s rise to fame. “When I came to Nashville at 22, I asked the older musicians, what should I do to establish a career in music? They told me that I should go down to the union and become a member, and I did, that very day.” O’Connor remembers. “And guess what I just got in the mail? My 25-year member pin!” he adds excitedly.
The decision to join the AFM was an important one, since O’Connor has appeared on more than 450 albums. Still, “I started to yearn for a more creative position in my musical life,” he recalls, “so I eventually decided to put aside all studio work.” Instead, O’Connor began to focus strictly on his solo career and composing efforts, which, as it turned out, became very much intertwined.
With the dual roles of composer and performer, O’Connor made a lot of noise with his “Fiddle Concerto,” which was commissioned and premiered by the Santa Fe Symphony in 1993. Now, it’s the most frequently performed violin concerto written in the past few decades, but at the time, it had its skeptics. “At first, people couldn’t imagine these two words together—‘fiddle and orchestra’ or ‘fiddle and concerto’,” he says. “But it feels like this sort of direction is kind of required for Americans to realize that American classical music is out there.”
Not only does O’Connor feel that we can create a cohesive and comprehensive American style of classical music, he would also like to see the development of an American school of string playing. Although pedagogy and technique for string players in all parts of the world have always been derived largely from the French, German, and Russian “schools,” or traditions, O’Connor hopes to change that. His Mark O’Connor Violin Method, a series of method books with accompanying CDs, will be released this fall.
In this new method, there is a strong focus on improvisation, and every tune used in the book is American-made. “My ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ is ‘Boil Them Cabbage Down,'” he laughs. “It’s an African-American tune that’s been around for hundreds of years.” Similar to the way many beginning violin students are taught to play variations of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” O’Connor’s students will be encouraged to improvise on the American folk tune.
O’Connor says that students of his violin method can go in any direction they like as their musical tastes develop. If a student decides that they want to play the great Romantic concertos, they will be just as prepared for that, as they would be to play fiddle tunes.
“My dream is to see an American string revolution,” O’Connor says. It might seem like a lofty goal, but he has come a long way. Forty teachers received training in the Mark O’Connor Violin Method this past summer and there are already plans for future training sessions. O’Connor is also the only person to give masterclasses in nontraditional violin styles at The Juilliard School and The Curtis Institute of Music, along with many other prestigious schools.
Describing the sounds of American music, O’Connor says, “It’s that constant journey, the discovery of wide open spaces, the continual optimism that pushes our people forward.” Others seem to agree. Such diverse performers as Yo-Yo Ma of Local 802 (New York City), James Taylor of Local 802, and Alison Krauss of Local 257 have embraced his music. In 2007 Marin Alsop premiered O’Connor’s first symphony, “Americana Symphony,” at the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz. Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere recording of that symphony. In June, O’Connor released his String Quartet No. 2 “Bluegrass,” and String Quartet No. 3 “Old-Time,” to excellent reviews and top Billboard chart positions.
Most exciting developments are two recent performances that O’Connor gave in Paris, France, and Dresden, Germany, where he performed two of his six violin concertos. “I have never received a reaction like that from the audience and from the musicians in my career,” he gushes. “It was an amazing outpouring of interest and affection towards what I was doing.” And this time, the key words are “France” and “Germany.” It seems that things have come full circle.
“To go to Europe with my own version of their concerto form, and to have a complete American style and technique and orchestration, and to have a response like that—I think it shows the beginning of a new horizon,” says O’Connor. With three more orchestral pieces in the works, it looks like Mark O’Connor will continue to expand the horizons of American music.