Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz Trio.
At the Rockwood Woman’s Club, Sunday, May 21.
Reviewed by Charles Donelan
Mark O’Connor clearly leads a charmed life. His early musical education in Seattle brought him into contact with some of the greatest and most unorthodox fiddlers of all time, including Texas master Benny Thomasson and French swing giant Stéphane Grappelli. Lately, he has taken to hanging out with other string virtuosos such as Edgar Meyer, Joshua Bell, and Yo-Yo Ma. For the latest incarnation of his classical music crossover tendency, O’Connor enlisted two wonderful musicians: violist Carol Cook from Edinburgh and cellist Natalie Haas from California. Both have extensive experience as classical soloists and traditional fiddle music performers.
The concert began with “Old Country Fairy Tale” from the trio’s 2004 release Crossing Bridges. The piece was inspired by a fiddle-contest round, but it has the hallmarks of O’Connor’s mature classical style. Next up was the “Appalachia Waltz,” from which the trio takes its name. The piece has a remarkably stable quality to it, as though it were hewn in oak or some other immensely old and durable wood. The audience response was rapturous, with some audible gasps as it reached its conclusion. O’Connor eschews the kind of flashy virtuosity one ordinarily associates with advanced fiddling in favor of a slow-burn, high-intensity dreaminess.
Despite the visceral impact of nearly every number, the afternoon’s highlight was the world premiere of “In the Summertime,” a song commissioned by UCSB Arts & Lectures that he only finished a few days before. The product of a collaboration with poet and lyricist Jennifer Hamady, the composition is nevertheless entirely wordless and instrumental. In it, O’Connor wears his considerable heart mostly on his sleeve, addressing the mixed emotions experienced by a mid-career musician, or anyone confronting the bittersweet prospect of middle age.
In the A section the music replicates the heady excitement of youthful innocence, while in the B section it delves into the shadows of reflection — both nostalgic yearning for the past and prospective hope for the future. O’Connor repeatedly acknowledges his specific ambition to give rise to an indigenous tradition of classical composition in this country, one as deeply imbued with folk forms and feeling as that of Eastern European masters such as Dvořák and Liszt. The premiere of “In the Summertime” showed a man at the height of his abilities, and in touch with the core of his humanity and his birthright as an American.