Thursday, October 16, 2003

Mark O'Connor combines classical, fiddle music

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark O'Connor
Among the acts appearing in Cincinnati during Tall Stacks weekend, one musician is a common denominator.

Fiddler Mark O'Connor, 42, who has a gig with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Music Hall Friday and Saturday, has performed with about a third of the performers coming to the Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival.

"When I was doing those kind of things as a sideman, I did play with a lot of those people," says O'Connor, who got his start at age 23 as a session fiddler in Nashville. "Many of them were on a TV show that I used to have, The American Music Shop."

He has played with countless giants, from Tammy Wynette to Chet Atkins. Blues artist Delbert McClinton, the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill made their TV debuts with him on his show, where he was bandleader.

How he went from sideman to symphony soloist is one of the most unusual success stories in classical music.

What: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Michael Morgan, guest conductor; Mark O'Connor, violin; Cristian Ganicenco, trombone
When: 11 a.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Music Hall
Tickets: $13-75-$56.75; 381-3300 or Web site
There's more: Mark O'Connor is dedicating his concerts to Daniel Pearl Music Day, honoring the journalist/fiddler who was killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.
"He came to see my concerts, and I never shook his hand," says O'Connor, who is artistic adviser for the Daniel Pearl Foundation. "The foundation is to speak out against hatred and bring people together. Music is a good way to do that."
A few of the Tall Stacks performers that fiddler Mark O'Connor has played with:
Lucinda Williams
The Hackberry Ramblers
The Fairfield Four
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Shawn Colvin
Patty Griffin
Dar Williams
B.B. King Del McCoury Band
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
The Nashville Bluegrass Band
Delbert McClinton
Emmylou Harris
Nickel Creek
Steve Earle and The Dukes
Los Lobos
"I kept my hand in my own creative projects," says O'Connor, who has composed folk and jazz pieces since he was a kid. "In 1990, I decided to put 100 percent of my effort into being a solo artist. ... I just started cultivating my own music, and started composing full time instead of part time."

O'Connor's journey began in Seattle, where he picked up classical guitar at age 5. At 11, he discovered bluegrass and jazz violin. He soon proved to be a prodigy, and worked with Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson at age 12. At 17, he toured with French jazz legend Stephane Grappelli, who gave him private lessons on the road.

The violin represented his "personal voice." But he needed to find his own way.

"Going to Nashville was a driving force, because I was broke; I was almost starving," he says. It turned out to be more lucrative than he ever dreamed. He retired at 29.

"I was determined to do in my music whatever the heck I wanted to," he says. That meant bringing his style of playing into the classical setting. He started composing classical violin pieces. The American Seasons, which he performs this weekend, is his fourth concerto.

Largely self-taught, he studied scores of Shostakovich, Beethoven and Bach, and worked with a few conductors, asking lots of questions along the way.

"I've always been a curious person. Then, I've also benefited from having colleagues that have become friends," he says. Those friends include superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer. Their second album on Sony, Appalachian Journey, received a 2001 Grammy Award.

The time was right, he thinks, because classical music is heading into directions that would have been labeled "crossover" a few years ago.

"My instinct told me that's where I should go with my music," he says. "Some country music journalists didn't have a clue what I was up to. But I just went with my heart."


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