by Mike Telin

O'Connor-SQViolinist, composer and educator Mark O’Connor is not a folk musician or a jazz musician or a classical musician. Nor is he a musician specializing in any one of the multitude of musical styles he has studied. The categorization of Mark O’Connor is nearly impossible as he is his own musical genre.

On Wednesday, October 30 at 7:30 in Gartner Auditorium, Mark O’Connor returns to Cleveland with his string quartet for performances of his String Quartet No. 2 “Bluegrass,” Appalachia Waltz and String Quartet No. 3 “Old-Time.” The concert is co-presented by CIM and the Cleveland Museum of Art as part of the Mixon Hall Masters Series: Return of the Composer/Virtuoso and the CMA Performing Arts Series: Masters of the Violin. A conversation between O’Connor and CIM president Joel Smirnoff begins at 6:00 p.m.

Through his popular summer string camps and method books, O’Connor is training the next generation of musicians in the art of what he refers to as “American” string playing. And while in town he will also present master classes in string improvisation and composition as well an educational workshop at CIM. O’Connor says that “I believe people will look back on the early part of the 21st century in violin and ruminate on how fast the culture changed from the Suzuki era of all-technical training and Baroque music to American string playing and its creativity, cultural diversity, inclusiveness and virtuosity, taking its rightful position in private violin studios, community music schools and music conservatories alongside the great masterworks of Europe.”

Because of his schedule and the deadline for this article Mark O’Connor graciously agreed to answer some questions by e-mail. What I did not expect was how completely thoughtful, well-articulated and engaging his answers would be. Please enjoy.

Mike Telin: In your program notes for the String Quartet No. 2, “Bluegrass,” you write, “With my String Quartet No 2, I bring to bear one of my favorite music styles I learned as an 11 and 12 year old, Bluegrass.” As a young player, what first attracted you to Bluegrass?

Mark O’Connor: As is the case with most other American music styles, I particularly loved the creativity, improvisation, virtuosity and individuality of Bluegrass music by its greatest players. I liked the acoustic instrumentation as well and played most of the instruments growing up. I also liked that the fact that the music style was a recent development of string band music in 1945 and that bluegrass was developed into what we called “newgrass” music in the 1970s, the kind of bluegrass that I took part in mostly.

My band, Strength In Numbers, with Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer in the 1980s was referred to as a newgrass development of bluegrass. I see my classical string quartet entitled “bluegrass” as another kind of development of both bluegrass music and string quartet writing.

MT: You also write in your notes, “…that was until I was ready to write this ‘classical’ string quartet.” How did you know it was time to write a “classical” quartet?

MO’C: My first classical string quartet predated this Quartet No. 2, “bluegrass,” by about 18 years! That came by way of a commission from the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1988. I actually did not know I was ready to write one back then, but they were offering me $30,000 for a four movement work, and that, my friend, was very difficult to turn down. Sante Fe festival believed in me and believed that my style could lend itself well to classical string players, perhaps more than I believed it at the time. While my piece was successful, received a standing ovation from the classical festival audience, got a great review and I recorded it on Warner Bros Records with classical string virtuosos Daniel Phillips, Carter Brey and Edgar Meyer, I did not return to the genre for 18 years. It took me that long to develop an idea for what kind of impact I could make in classical quartet literature. I wanted to be proud of my contribution and have it enter the canon if at all possible one day. I knew it was not a genre that I wanted to contribute to lightly. In fact I didn’t write “bluegrass” until I had themes and development sketches for a cycle of six quartets. I didn’t want to piecemeal it one by one. I knew that this was going to be a bigger artistic statement and musical arc, one that I felt in many ways that I single handedly owned, at least for now.

MT: I completely agree with your philosophy that “a modern classical violin student who develops a working knowledge of folk fiddling, jazz music and world music styles can enjoy a lifetime of music-making, and be more successful in the new music environment.” Why is it that your philosophy is only now really beginning to be embraced by conservatories (although in a small way it has been happening here and there for a while)?

MO’C: Well, like most things in our culture, branding and messaging is important as well as some success stories. You got to get the word out. I have done so about as much as any one violinist could do to this end I suppose and I still have plenty left in the tank. There are others as well who have contributed in getting good ideas in American string playing out there into the culture, most of them being my close friends and colleagues. Many of them teach at my own string camps of which the quote you state emanates from.

My method books, the O’Connor Method, has been out now for just 4 years, and already tens of thousands of young students are learning from those books. I just did several presentations at the Montana Music Educators convention last week and my lead teacher trainer is training 15 to 20 teachers over the weekend there in Montana and certifying them in Book I and II. We have some certified teachers in Cleveland on my Method including Michele George who is a fantastic teacher for us. She teaches at our big summer camp in Charleston which was sold a couple of months ago with 150 students. It feels like it is a slow process in some ways, I grant that.

But one day I believe, people will look back on the early part of the 21st century in violin and ruminate on how fast the culture changed from the Suzuki era of all-technical training and Baroque music to American string playing and its creativity, cultural diversity, inclusiveness and virtuosity, taking its rightful position in private violin studios, community music schools and music conservatories alongside the great masterworks of Europe. As a matter of fact the Berklee College of Music has doubled down on strings by tenfold the last few years and they have hosted my summer string camp now for the last 3 years. The University of Miami where I am Artist in Residence is but a sliver away from developing an entire American Strings department.

What I want to say to the Cleveland Institute of Music is, I really want you to like my message! This will be my 2nd visit to the conservatory in three years as a visiting artist so that is a very good sign. Since my teacher, the iconic jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, was never invited to give classes to these kinds of conservatories while he was living, by comparison things are beginning to move! I was the very first string player to ever give a masterclass at Juilliard on American music, one’s original violin compositions and violin improvisation. That was just 10 years ago.

MT: Can you say just a few words about the members of the quartet?

MO’C: The members of my string quartet are dynamic virtuosos who are dedicated to new music, to American music and making it leap from the stage to the audience. Kelly Hall-Tompkins on violin, Gillian Gallagher on viola and Patrice Jackson on cello are a composer’s and ensemble leader’s dream. I auditioned each of them in NYC, all independently from one another. They have big time pedigrees with Juilliard, Eastman and Yale degrees, but they bring so much personality and life to my music and our ensemble as well. They feel the music deeply, they listen to the other players like a jazz musician has to. Never once have they coasted or dialed it in. They are passionate and in the moment on stage always. I treasure the times we play together.

Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 22, 2013

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