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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the February 25, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Appalachia in Hightstown

As a performer the prodigious Mark O’Connor mixes and blends violin styles, but has a bias for the music of Appalachia. In a telephone interview he uses language similarly. Besides the meat-and-potato speech that a person needs to get from one end of a sentence to another, O’Connor has another bias, for the two words "fun" and "internalize."

It appears that just about everything O’Connor does in his multi-dimensional career is fun, whether it’s rehearsing, performing, composing, arranging, producing his own recordings, educating young musicians, or maintaining a web-diary while on tour. In all these things, he internalizes what comes his way professionally, immersing himself in the matter at hand, absorbing and integrating its essence, then transforming it as he makes it his own. Floating wherever his musical sense of integrity guides him, he recognizes no boundaries. He can no more be contained within the usual musical boundaries than a geyser can be prevented from erupting. "If you’re a race track horse and you’re trained and ready to run, you’ll freak out if you can’t," he once told Geoffrey Himes of "No Depression" magazine.

The Appalachia Waltz ensemble, a string trio founded in 2002, grew out of O’Connor’s internalized earlier experiences, and appears at the Peddie School’s Mount-Burke Theater on Saturday, February 28. The ensemble includes Natalie Haas, violin, and Carolyn Cooper, cello, both classically trained. The group presents the same program in Red Bank’s Count Basie Theater Friday, February 27.

O’Connor’s compositions, which spread the fun he invests in them, provide the bulk of the music. O’Connor gets personal in his compositions. One, "Poem for Carlita," honors his wife, a former model. Much of the music comes from O’Connor’s two recent musical projects with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer. The O’Connor-Ma-Meyer collaborations shaped two CDs on the Sony label: "Appalachian Waltz" and "Appalachian Journey," which won a Grammy in 2001.

The Appalachia Waltz trio is scheduled to appear at New York’s 92nd Street "Y" during the 2004-’05 season. O’Connor makes his debut appearance there in the company of violinist Jaime Laredo, cellist Sharon Robinson, and others, in a chamber music concert on April 21.

O’Connor explains how he came to create the Appalachia Waltz trio in the wake of his very successful collaboration with Ma and Meyer. "Classical solo bass is not very common," he says. "Edgar [Meyer] is uniquely gifted. He plays a very small bass, and, when we were recording ‘Appalachian Waltz,’ tuned it higher than normal, perhaps to project as a solo instrument. Because I wanted that high bass very active, I needed to pitch Ma’s part higher than most cello parts. He has a very treble-sounding cello, real brilliant. He also can play very high.

"When I looked over the music after that album was finished, I realized that I could switch to viola and cello without changing the notes," continues O’Connor. "For me that opened up the world. The arrangement for viola and cello made my music available to more musicians.

"Natalie [Haas] and Carolyn [Cook] really internalized the music. They made it their own and the music went to another, higher level of playing. They play as if the music was written for them and for their instruments. They’re like reading my mind. The biggest thing about it for me was the legacy of the music carrying on. It had legs; it was one of best things I’ve done in my career."

Born in Seattle, O’Connor was the fourth of five siblings. "My mom was a homemaker. She was determined to have us in the arts, whether we were talented or not," he says. "As the years went on, it became apparent that she should devote her efforts to me and my younger sister Michelle, who studied ballet."

When O’Connor was an infant his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died when he was 20. "I’m in contact with my dad," he says, "but my mom was central. She was our connection to the arts. When she died I had to create another musical family to replace what she had given me."

O’Connor’s mother started him on guitar during his early years in grade school. His violin studies began at age 11. And he added mandolin to the mix. He describes his formal instruction as consisting of seven years’ classical study, and five years of folk and jazz. One of his first violin teachers, John Burke, noted, in a web posting, "Mark’s greatest gift was his determination and willingness to work on things much harder and longer than anyone I ever met."

At age 10 O’Connor publicly showed his characteristic penchant for being his own category-defying self. Entered in a classical guitar competition at the University of Washington, he didn’t bother telling his teacher that he planned to play flamenco music instead of what was expected. He won, not only in the youth division, but in all categories.

O’Connor names two mentors of special importance in his development: Benny Thommason, the Texas fiddler, whom he heard for the first time at age 12, and Stephane Grappelli, the French jazz and gypsy innovator, whom he heard for the first time a year later.

By the time O’Connor graduated from high school in 1979 he had recorded four traditional fiddle albums for Rounder Records. In addition, he had become a producer of recordings. He called his company OMAC. "It was a name my mother and I thought of when I was 14," he said. "The ‘O’ is for O’Connor, and the `MAC’ comes from her maiden name, MacDonald. The company released recordings for a few years, but we couldn’t keep it going." When O’Connor’s output of compositions reached a monumental state, about three years ago, he re-activated the company. "I keep writing new material, and it’s obvious that everything couldn’t be released on Sony."

O’Connor has noticeably extended the contemporary violin repertoire. He and other violinists perform his six caprices for unaccompanied violin in concert. His Fiddle Concerto No. 1, with more than 150 performances, has become the most performed contemporary violin concerto.

His newest compositions are a chamber music piece and a double concerto. His piano trio, the chamber work, for the Eroica Trio, will premier at Villa Montalzo, a winery near San Jose, California, which started presenting concerts 75 years ago. His sixth concerto, for violin and cello, will feature as soloists O’Connor and Natalie Haas, the cellist of the Appalachian Waltz trio. Debuts are slated for May, 2005, with the Grand Rapids Orchestra, the San Diego Orchestra, and the East Texas Orchestra, the commissioning institutions. "Last week the solo parts were ready, and Natalie and I practiced them for the first time. It was one of the most fun rehearsals I’ve ever had," O’Connor says.

O’Connor thinks of himself as an exclusively American composer. In Strings magazine he told Kevin McKeough, "What I have steered away from is this real European classical model of music making. It’s almost like I make music in a way that defies that the violin was even related to Europe."

It is difficult to say whether O’Connor has his greatest impact as composer or performer – with the Appalachia Waltz trio, which performs in Hightstown and Red Bank; with the jazz trio Hot Swing; and with a bluegrass trio where he joins Chris Thile, mandolin, and Bryan Sutton, guitar.

O’Connor readily adapts to his differing co-performers. On a recent weekend he performed with Hot Swing in Washington, D.C., and with the Appalachia Waltz trio in Georgia. "It was easy to go back and forth," he says. "It’s my music."

With the pieces for unaccompanied violin O’Connor is both composer and lone performer. Playing solo, vulnerable and exposed on stage, is particularly demanding for a violinist. "Not many people do it," O’Connor says. "It’s scary, especially when the audience is not with you yet. If the audience is not with you yet, eventually they will be: that’s a mentality that all musicians must have. You have to play convincingly enough to win the audience over. Especially when you’re playing intimate music there’s an energy, almost electricity, that gets generated in the room when things are really clicking. When you’re hitting your stride, and the music feels good, the energy changes. When things are not clicking it’s a real struggle, and you have to battle yourself and battle the audience. The fewer instruments there are on stage, the more that process magnifies."

When he performs with others, O’Connor takes a position midway between seeking consensus and making himself the center of the ensemble’s universe. "The reason I want to perform with others is to find the halfway meeting point and bring people a little closer to what I do. With the Appalachia Waltz trio I’m writing music that emphasizes my background, but reaches out to classical musicians and the audience. Natalie and Carolyn make a leap toward where I’m coming from artistically. They help bring my music into the light. As virtuosic as they are, I get to be someone who shows them my music, and I’m rewarded by having them play it back with soul and heart."

It pleases O’Connor to know that he has an impact on his juniors. "My approach to string playing doesn’t exist in a vacuum," he says. "I’ve put enough records and concerts out there so that things are coming back to roost. People are starting to design their musical lives around things I’ve originated. Natalie and Carolyn are examples. A lot of people who’ve grown up with my music over the last 11 years are starting to play professionally."

O’Connor has institutionalized his influence by establishing two summer workshops. His Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp near Nashville, Tennessee, and his Mark O’Connor String Conference near San Diego, California, embody his philosophy of openness. Neither requires an audition. His sons, Forrest, 15 and Gage, 12, attended O’Connor’s camps.

"We take all levels at the camps," O’Connor says. "It’s first come, first served – whoever’s on the ball the fastest. My idea is that people starting out will be so inspired that they will go on to great things. You can be a great musician without a huge technical command. Musical interpretation is not necessarily tied to technical prowess. Inspiration drives people to develop technique. I don’t want to teach technically gifted people. I want to teach people with open minds and a lot of drive, people who are willing to put themselves into a position to be inspired."

With his camps, and his enormous bent for collaboration, O’Connor is exporting his capacity for fun and his ability to internalize. The average web surfer can share in the process by turning to O’Connor’s welcoming website, www.markoconnor.com.

– Elaine Strauss

Appalachia Waltz, CAPPS, Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz Ensemble presents an evening of original chamber music. $20. Saturday, February 28, 8 p.m.


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