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Mark O’Connor: From Nashville to San Francisco, Musician Extraordinaire
by Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Though Itzhak Perlman and Isaac Stern have both lovingly referred to their violins as “fiddles,” Mark O’Connor may have the world’s indisputable claim to the term. By all accounts—professional and lay (The New York Times, among numerous others, calling him “spectacular”)—O’Connor is a superb fiddle player, whose performances and compositions have been creating a sensation in the music world—on stage and on CDs. “Fiddle Concerto No 1,” for example (pointedly titled to embrace the compatibility between folk and classical), is said to be the “most-performed modern violin concerto.” Though his virtuoso work on the guitar and the mandolin have also won wide praise, the “fiddle”—a.k.a. violin—is O’Connor’s most abiding love, both the word and the instrument. The “slangy, casual moniker,” he says, keeps him conscious of the world of folk culture that has prompted so much of his musicianship and that is explicitly reflected in the names of some of his best-selling albums, “Appalachia Waltz” and “Appalachian Journey,” which won a Grammy in 2001. For five years running, Mark O’Connor was Country Music Association’s Musician of the Year.

What is particularly remarkable about this still not-as-well-known-as-he-should-be extraordinary talent is his range: jazz, folk, classical, rock. He can do traditional, he can do experimental, he can play acoustic, he can do electric. He fiddles brilliantly and regularly with the likes of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Yo-Yo Ma and the double bassist Edgar Meyer, as well as with well known rock and folk groups. Later this month his new album “In Full Swing” will be released, and next month, February 2003, he’ll be at Lincoln Center playing with Wynton Marsalis and vocalist Jane Monheit. But wait, there’s even more to this astonishing young man who at 41 has already covered more ground than an aggregate of musicians. Indeed, Mark O’Connor is an aggregate of musicians—record artist, educator, arranger, music camp director (in Nashville and San Diego), strings conference director (he prefers “fiddle gatherings”), and of course, composer and performer. What unites all these activities is the quality O’Connor brings to his work, which has been called “distinctively American.”

No “crossover” artist, O’Connor is the first to point out that he crossed over long ago when, at the age of 7 he moved from guitar, his first instrument, playing classical and flamenco, to the fiddle, when he was 11. He sees himself as an “inclusive” musician. “Innovative” could also apply, as well as “inspired.” His fertile imagination seems to know no bounds. Ideas just come to him. Thinking about 9/11 one day led to his composing a Folk Mass, an a cappella work for the Gloriae dei Cantores singers from New England, which will premiere at St. Thomas Church in the City. Unlike most composers, he does not sit at the piano and write. Everything, he says somewhat shyly, seems to originate and develop in his head.

Though legend has it that O’Connor is largely self-taught, he has had formal lessons on the violin, the guitar and mandolin. He is also the first to credit the major influences in his life. When talking about his mother, his tentative, somewhat halting tenor noticeably shifts into animated mode. She was, before she died of cancer when he was 20, the guiding light of his life. No one played an instrument in his family, he says, though he does remember that the stereo was always on with classical music. In better days, his presents were ballroom dancers, which may account for O’Connor’s attraction to flamenco guitar when he was young. He also singles out the great Texas fiddler, Benny Thomasson, and jazz guitar legend Stephane Grappelli.

It is not just Mark O’Connor’s music, however, that commands attention. It is his extraordinary personal story, which includes the kind of grim childhood and adolescence that one associates with 19th century novels. Growing up poor, in a bleak Seattle backwater, lonely, solitary, burdened prematurely with responsibilities at home and totally ignored at school (when he was not being waylaid and beaten up) for accomplishments that were already being reported in the press, he came to feel that he had a gift that no one wanted. When the occasional opportunity to perform did come along, he and his mother were met with resistance and mockery from high school administrators. At the time there was not one musical instrument in the entire building, he points out. Depressed, anxious, withdrawn, he decided at the age of 17 to hit the road, a trail that led to Georgia (where he played with The Dixie Dregs, a top rock fusion group), to Nashville, to San Francisco, purposeful drifting that with each turn brought him great admiration. His story is one he tells for cathartic reasons, obviously, but also perhaps as a cautionary tale and as a way of explaining his views about music education.

He thinks that young people should expose themselves to playing different kinds of
music and learning various instruments. Specialization, rigid curricula, age-structured or mode-conditioned instruction are not for him. He notes, incidentally, that his old high school was completely rebuilt some years ago and underwent a total curricular overhaul, including the institution of a music program. Nonetheless, he laments the diminution of the culture of music in America today, the lack of performance in homes. There is just so much that schools can do or should do. When he was a child, even the poorest would gather in rooms to sing and play. Pianos were the rule not the exception. And then, of course, reflecting on his unhappy childhood, Mark O’Connor articulates a heartfelt belief not only in the healing power of music but in its significance for a free society.#

More on this unusual musician can be found on his website: www.markoconnor.com




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