Mark O'Connor: Mr. Americana

by Victoria Aschheim

Violinist Mark O'Connor will give a master class 3 p.m., December 3 at the New College Theatre, and will perform his own composition, "Call of the Mockingbird," with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra 8 p.m. December 4 at Sanders Theatre. In anticipation of these events, I corresponded with Mark O'Connor and asked him some questions about his musical ethos.

VA: What musical issues will you emphasize at your Learning from Performers master class?

MO: In my classes with performers, I will try to find the artistic nature of the music, and look for ways the student can discover the essence of the material at hand, and the authenticity of their own individualism through the performance of the music.

You have a fascinating combination of inspirations to your art: the rich aural tradition of folk music, classical music, flamenco music, and 21st-century new music as well, as well as the work of the singer, Johnny Cash. Which has had the greatest impact on you? Do you have other influences? Indeed your own musical hybridity, is a quintessentially American approach in itself.

My greatest influences are still my two mentors and teachers, the jazz virtuoso of the violin Stephane Grappelli, and the folk fiddle genius Benny Thomasson. Both of them creative giants in music.

Your first orchestral score, "Fiddle Concerto" has been the most performed modern violin concerto, with 200 performances. As a contemporary composer this is a tremendous achievement. Which of these performances has meant the most to you?

It was a great occasion to play my American-styled concertos in Germany for the first time, for instance, and to take my new style using their form to the birth place of the Western classical music. I have always enjoyed playing my pieces anywhere really, for who ever will listen.

Yo-Yo Ma is very dear to Harvard audiences, and you have had an important working relationship with him. Tell us more about this.

I composed a piece called Appalachia Waltz, and that led to an album I did with Yo-Yo Ma by the same name. This and the following CD we made together with Edgar Meyer became very successful. Really my biggest highlight.

How does America most influence your compositions? Appalachia is one of the great influences on your work. Your Americana Symphony has been recorded by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Which aspects of Americana touch you the most? For example, American architecture, like that of Frank Lloyd Wright, has influenced your compositions. Are there other American composers, such as Copland and Gershwin, that influence you?

Yes, the great American composers like Copland, Gerswhin, Ellington and Bernstein are certainly inspirations to my orchestral composition. My Americana Symphony is one of my best works I think; it really brings the Americana style I have been able to develop fully into the setting I was writing for. That music is all about the journey we usually end up taking in this country, the journey to find more freedom. I have been influenced by other artistic disciplines as well, like Wright's architecture. In particular on my 6th violin concerto (recorded at Sanders), where his hexagon shaped plantation in South Carolina had quite a fantastical impact on me!

Prominent American dance companies are moved to choreograph your work for their performances. Can you tell us about this aspect of your compositional output?

I love Twyla Tharp's choreography especially. I love what she does to my music with the human body bending, extending and twirling through the air. That has been a real privilege to see that take place for me.

Describe your work with young musicians, in your Fiddle and String Conferences, as well as the new String Camp you have begun just this year.

My string camps have been so important for me on a personal level, it turns out. The amount of students who have spent a week with me and the others at the camps are now past 5,000 people. At these events, I present a new idea of string instrument training, based on an American concept or ideal that attempts to let classical, jazz, fiddling and world music styles through the front door and for them to have equal footing once they arrive and take a seat. I also have just released my new violin method to the market. It has been extraordinary how many teachers appear that they might be interested in teaching the violin using some of these concepts, right from the very beginning!

The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra is so much looking forward to your visit. What does it mean to you to come to Harvard to perform with HRO?

I have attended a concert by the HRO in the past, so I am delighted to be their guest soloist. We are going to play my "Call of the Mockingbird" concerto, music I wrote for the Bicentennial Celebration of Tennessee's statehood now 15 years ago.

Any other reflections?

I should say that my son Forrest is a senior at Harvard this year and is also the president of a student-led group called The Harvard College American Music Association (info@hcama.org). I am proud of the work he and several of his friends on campus have done to bring new attention to the breadth and scope of American music the last few years.

Mark O'Connor will give a violin master class 3 p.m. Dec. 3 at the New College Theatre, as part of Learning From Performers. If you are a Harvard student musician or just enjoy O'Connor's music and work, please come to this special opportunity to attend and participate in a class given by this prominent American classical and multi-genre violinist and composer. Read more about the event here. FMI about the HRO concert at 8 p.m. Dec. 4: http://ofa.fas.harvard.edu/cal/details.php?ID=40559

[Caption: Mark O'Connor in Sanders Theatre after rehearsing with HRO]

[Caption: Mark O'Connor and HRO Music Director, Federico Cortese]