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My first encounter with the phenomenon that is Mark O'Connor, described on his web site as violinist/composer/fiddler, was a special off-series concert of the Eastern Music Festival. Designed to broaden and build the festival's audiences, that July 16 concert was sold out well in advance. I had heard O'Connor's "Appalachia Waltz"" as an encore to Yo-Yo Ma's sold-out recital in UNC's Memorial Hall last spring. Being predisposed against so-called "cross-over" performers, I was unprepared for the range of violin skills he brought to bear on a diverse repertory. My July review said "a highlight... was a spectacular demonstration of violin technique in his Caprice No. 3. Double stops, triple stops, and all sorts of tricky rapid bowings--it had everything!" At the time he mentioned that he would be touring the next season with his newest violin concerto, which formed the principal offering on the present occasion.
It was through my following of the regional tours of both the Eroica Piano Trio and the Spoleto USA Chamber Music Tour that I discovered the fine series across the border in Danville, Virginia. It is an easy and scenic trip up Highway 86 for folks in the northern Orange County area. Most concerts are given in the Auditorium of George Washington High School, which is located at the last stop light before Business 86 crosses the Dan River. The last time I used the online map services, the results were comically wrong. The Wednesday, October 17, date for Mark O'Connor and the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra was ideal for me to fit the concert into my schedule and allowed us to post the review before the tour reaches North Carolina audiences in four locations (listed below). These concerts are part of a 28-city tour.
Somehow I had gotten the impression that the tour would double-feature Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and O'Connor's. That would have made an intriguing combination. However the first half of the Danville program had instead two staples of the chamber orchestra repertoire, Edvard Grieg's quicksilver "Holberg" Suite, Op. 40, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's sumptuous Serenade, Op. 48. The Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra, founded in 1993 and based in Boston, is a crack group of young and visibly enthusiastic players. Their director, Scott Yoo, a prize-winning violinist himself, is also the Associate Conductor of the Dallas Symphony. He conducted the entire concert without scores and with extremely detailed gestures. All players except three cellists and a miked acoustical guitarist in O'Connor piece stood while performing, and all changed positions for each piece on the program. On a long tour this probably helps maintain their enthusiasm since everyone has to be up for the exposed solos. Certainly everyone was on October 17! Attacks were crisp and rhythm was firmly maintained. Intonation was unusually clean and precise. Yoo demanded and got very detailed string articulation and phrasing. In the Grieg, the Sarabande was very individual, beginning slower and more relaxed than usual. The inflexions of the musical line were original and convincing. The Tchaikovsky featured a rich and warm string sound that avoided any hint of saccharine sentiment.
Instead of Vivaldi's meteorological seasons, Mark O'Connor's Third Violin Concerto, "The American Seasons," took as its inspiration Shakespeare's "Seven ages of man" from As You Like It, Act II, s.7. In an explicit nod to Vivaldi, the seven stages were forced into four movements. In addition, the use of American popular music forms gives this a distinctly American flavor and attitude. "Spring" opened with a bustling, optimistic passage that gave way to a propulsive and rhythmic birth theme. The violin cadenza after the statement of the principal theme contained all twelve major keys as a statement of youth's possibilities and bears a 13/8 time signature said to represent "the ancient golden ratio." It also contains hints of all the movements to come. "Summer" reminded me of the languorous and laid-back spirit of Gershwin's "Summertime." It began with adolescence depicted by a jaunty slow shuffle called "The Happy-Go-Lucky Blues." O'Connor worked hard to give classical players a handle on playing the blues, indicating that "a lot of those multi-note figures were meant to be heard not as one note, but smeared." Halfway through, the piece shifted gears with the coming of age. The blues theme was then just speeded up to become a "swing your partner" dance. "Fall" was a slow, muted and elegiac movement that represented maturity in which the solo violin climbed to a stratospheric F above high C. The last and longest movement, "Winter," had the most complex writing. O'Connor departed from Shakespeare's portraying a "sane man playing his ancestral tunes, here [using] O'Connor's own, Irish tunes." A knotty four- and five-part fugue contained some of his most adventurous harmonic writing. The dying man takes his last breath in an astonishing improvised violin cadenza. After the orchestra returned, the afterlife was painted in a fast, improvised solo. Album notes quote O'Connor as saying that "musically, the final passage is an attempt to leap into the future, to blend all the styles (he has) absorbed in (his) life--folk, blues, jazz--into a new way of playing solo violin [with] an orchestra." Before the concert, I had listened twice to the performance on his new CD and can testify that the astonishing cadenza was improvised longer and somewhat differently than in the published performance. The chamber players were equally surprised and appreciative. "The American Seasons" received an enthusiastic standing ovation and two unannounced encores were played. The first a sort of extended string fantasy--I believe it was not the "Appalachia Waltz"--had O'Connor playing as just another member of the strings. The last was an arrangement of "Amazing Grace."
Before "The American Seasons," five selections from a string suite by O'Connor were played. He started to announce it and misspoke "sucrets" for "suite" just as a child on the front row had an uninhibited coughing fit! The pieces weren't named, but allowing for my unfamiliarity, the first featured down-home country fiddling against an orchestral drone, the second was a slow ballad, the third featured a rag-like violin part against pizzicatos, the fourth featured broad strokes and sounded blues-like while the fifth was very fast like a jig.
Fans of Mark O'Connor will want to bookmark http://www.markoconnor.com/ [inactive 7/05] for biographical and musical background, current 28-city tour information as well as other marketing information.