Mark O'Connor with North Carolina Symphony Orchestra :: 05.09.04 :: Meymandi Concert Hall :: Raleigh, North Carolina

Mark O'Connor
Fiddle legend Mark O'Connor has made a career out of exploring different musical paths. From bluegrass guitar to classical violin, he's made enough music to release a Thirty-Year Retrospective, and he's still only 42 years old. His first album National Junior Fiddle Champion came out a day before he turned 13. A mere three years later he released Markology, which focused exclusively on his guitar playing. It's not every 16 year old that gets David Grisman, Norman Blake, Sam Bush, and Tony Rice to play on his albums. Clearly Mark O'Connor had something special from the beginning.

He joined Bush again in the late '80s for the short-lived newgrass supergroup Strength in Numbers, alongside Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Edgar Meyer. The '90s saw an increase in intricate, classical compositions, including 1995's The Fiddle Concerto, whose first suite has been performed by more musicians than any other modern violin concerto. The following year's Appalachia Waltz saw him paired with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer for an angelic run through the Celtic byways of Carolina classical. His current projects include his Hot Swing Trio, featuring his soaring, singing violin soaking up the sounds of yesteryear with Frank Vignola on guitar and Jon Burr on bass. He also currently fronts his Appalachia Waltz Trio with Carol Cook on viola and Natalie Haas on cello. In between it all, he plays classical shows with orchestras around the country, and it was in this setting that he appeared for three days in Raleigh with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra.

I feel about classical music probably the same way a lot of you do. I know the musicians are incredibly talented, probably the best in the world, but I just don't find myself putting on classical CDs at home. Lots of folks probably don't like classical music because it's not their kind of scene. Senior citizens enjoying wine and cheese before the show seems a far cry from tailgating at Deer Creek, but if you think about it, is it really so different? They come out to hear music, see their friends, and in general have the same kind of experience we have at a club or theater show. Lots of people never open their ears to jam bands for the same kinds of reasons--they don't like hippies or some such silliness. Let's not make the same mistake.

Mark O'Connor
That being said, don't worry, I dress up nice. No one there had any idea that aside from one trip to the New York Philharmonic with my dad, the extent of my classical music education took place during intermission at the Clifford Ball and Great Went. Despite their best efforts, Phish festivals aren't especially conducive to the sonic subtleties of orchestral outbursts. Like most things complicated and cerebral, classical music can take years to wrap your mind around.

I guess I've seen too many shows at small clubs and pizza parlors lately, because just walking into the Meymandi Concert Hall was enough to widen my eyes. Here was a sound space designed and built expressly for the purpose of live music. Not to be picky, but it's nice to see a show in a room built for music, rather than, say, college basketball. The giant stage was more than roomy enough for the 65 regular members of the orchestra. Obviously, in the olden days they had no way to amplify the sound, so a large number of people were needed simply to be heard. But there's also an indisputable power and grandeur when so many instruments are playing together. We're all used to hearing studio tricks to imitate large bands and big sounds these days, and maybe that's OK, but there's an unmistakable grace and connection to history when you're there to witness the full spectacle live. A full list of the musicians in the orchestra can be found here.

There are other differences in classical shows too. First, they tell you the set list ahead of time in the program. Second, they don't call it a set list. I found my head shaking to the rhythm a few times till I felt stupid and stopped. OK, so these folks don't move around a lot, but they sure clapped hard after each song. But don't make the mistake of clapping in between movements, or they'll bust you as a classical virgin for sure and start throwing popcorn at you. Or was that at Rocky Horror? Anyway, I have no idea how the entire audience could tell when the piece was over, or when it was just in the middle of the 43rd movement, but seriously there wasn't a single clap out of place all afternoon. I was very impressed, and obviously waited for an uproar before braving to collide my own hands together.

Assistant Conductor Kenneth Raskin was manning the reins as the show started with O'Connor on the sidelines, letting the orchestra set the initial mood. They began with a take on Morton Gould's "Oh Susannah" from his Stephen Foster Suite. This wasn't what I had expected to hear. Running through a medley of Stephen Foster songs, including "Camptown Races," the orchestra was diving deep into 19th century American music history. I guess they didn't want O'Connor to have all the crossover fun, so they decided to meet him halfway. They continued with the elegant, dramatic arrangements of "Appalachian Lament" and "Celebration" from bass trombonist Terry Mizesko's Highland Suite.

Mark O'Connor
O'Connor emerged to a huge reception from the crowd and introduced "Song of the Liberty Bell," which he'd written as the theme song for the PBS special Liberty. Most of his compositions are about America, as he aims to celebrate the quaint and poignant features that decorate our diverse country. For these shows, no less than 25 other violinists were playing behind him. As his opening notes rang out, the other violinists watched and listened. One simply closed his eyes and smiled. They soon raised their bows to join in, and soon the full orchestra was gliding away. The musicians all had sheet music in front of them, except for O'Connor standing at the front, playing his sweeping runs and convoluted compositions solely from memory.

One violin sure sounds lonely opening up a song after hearing all 26 play together. To wrap up the first set (I'll call it a "first set" whether they like it or not) they played another O'Connor original. "Strings and Threads" is a suite of 13 songs charting the evolution of American folk music, from Irish reels to American jazz. Weaving together an amazing amalgam of styles, O'Connor's furious fiddle adventures had the crowd in a standing ovation leading into intermission.

Intermission seems like a good time to address that age-old question: What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle? Conventional wisdom says if you can smack a drunk yelling "Free Bird" over the head with it and keep on playing, it's a fiddle. If the strings pop at the mere mention of Lynyrd Skynyrd, it's a violin. In reality, however, you have to go back a long time to find any difference in the two. These days the names are interchangeable, but back in the 1400s, when the violin was invented, it was just another type of fiddle. It became so popular it overshadowed its cousins, and in time the two became known as one.

Mark O'Connor
The second half of the show began, like the first, with the orchestra onstage without O'Connor. "Western Opener," arranged by James Bates, combined several noted cowboy themes in another surprising foray into orchestral roots music. Stephen Foster's "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair," as arranged by Cailliet, also included pieces of three other Foster songs. Raskin took the time to announce the pieces to the audience, adding in dashes of humor with his introductions. Some fans of classical music prefer a more stoic conductor, but his accessible approach and friendly demeanor was perfectly fitting with O'Connor's laid-back persona.

O'Connor returned to the stage for "Turkey in the Straw," an early American minstrel tune arranged by Carmen Dragon. This is one of those songs that you know the melody to, even if, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you don't know you know it. They wrapped things up with O'Connor's own "Call of the Mockingbird" from his Fanfare to the Volunteer album. He took a breathtaking solo in this piece, raging on for several minutes in a truly virtuosic performance while the orchestra swelled and bucked underneath the sound.

Another standing ovation led to the unannounced encore (trust me, in classical it's rare) of "Amazing Grace." His beautiful tone and ability to coax emotions out of each note left the audience with glowing smiles as the show came to a close. Mark O'Connor had proven yet again why his place in the annals of musical history is already reserved. The only thing left to wonder is which category they'll place him in. I'll bet he's got enough up his sleeve to keep us all guessing for years.

Paul Kerr
JamBase | North Carolina
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[Published on: 6/2/04]

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