Middle-Aged Mastery

Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz Trio.

At the Rockwood Woman’s Club, Sunday, May

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

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.


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