Mark O’Connor is that rare musician who seems equally at home in classical and American popular idioms. He has had the audacity and bravery to combines the different styles that he loves in individual compositions. His most famous recording is Appalachian Waltz, where he conspired with bassist Edgar Meyer and cellist Yo-yo Ma to create what has amounted to a new American musical idiom—a “Classical Americana” that draws as much from country and bluegrass sources as it does from Copland, Bernstein and the European tradition. Mr. O’Connor is respected fiddler as well as deeply knowledgeable about “serious” music, and the alchemy of his music is charming, fun and—sometimes—profound.
In 1997, Mr. O’Connor composed the centerpiece of this recording, the “Double Violin Concerto”, his third symphonic concerto. Here, Mr. O’Connor combines his interest in classical music with his other American passion, jazz. Particularly, Mr. O’Connor is a devotee of the music of Stephane Grappelli—the great swing player and colleague of Django Reinhardt. This composition seeks to place the classical orchestra and two violin soloists in the role of big band and jazz soloist. Mr. O’Connor’s collaborators here are the American violin virtuoso Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop.
Listeners with a jazz background will likely hear this work quite differently than classical fans. There is a fairly long—and mostly unsuccessful—history of forced combinations of jazz and classical music. “Third Stream” efforts, as they once were called, tended to tack jazz on top of a mostly classical piece, making the improvising soloist seem out of place, or they would treat a classical theme in a swinging style. These efforts have generally seemed well intentioned but sterile or forced. To jazz fans, the “Double Violin Concerto” will have to pass muster as being somehow authentic unto itself rather than a cheesy combination of two styles that, historically, haven’t blended with grace.
Classical aficionados may bring less baggage to their listening. They will notice a mostly familiar use of the orchestra—no drum kit, walking bass, or bluesy piano. The soloists sound unusual because they are bending notes, glissing into blues intervals, and playing the dotted syncopations typical of jazz “fiddling”. In the first movement, while the fiddle passages (mostly conversations between the two soloists in which they trade ideas and then try to one-up each other) are idiomatically blue, they are noticeably written rather than improvised, and when the orchestra returns behind the solos, the music is no more forbidding than Copland’s music for the ballet Rodeo. The music is fun and lively—it “swings” not because of jazz momentum but because O’Connor has arranged the orchestra parts in canon style to create some rhythmic “rub” as the parts overlap.
Jazz listeners, I think, will hear these overtly “jazzy” sections (mostly in movements one and three of the concerto) as being a kind of faux-jazz that mimics the excitement of jazz in a classical setting without really nailing its essence. The second (slow) movement, is much more successful from a jazz point of view. Dripping in an elegant melodicism that most anyone will associate with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, this movement seems both more original and more whole. The two soloists are distinct—one more like a blues player and the other delicately dancing—and the orchestra is more integrated with their playing throughout the movement.
When the “swinging” style returns in movement three, the band is meant to sound more like a New Orleans-style jazz group, contrapuntally brassy in a two-beat rhythm. The fiddles play in this contrapuntal style with light ease, held aloft by easy punches from the orchestra. The harmonic movement here is faster and so the fiddling—still composed—sounds more inventive and clever.
To the extent that O’Connor is, indeed, inventing a new style of American music each time he composes, it may be unfair to judge the “Double Violin Concerto” by either purely classical or jazz standards. Simply putting it on, turning up the volume, and listening is a delightful experience. The dash of dialogue and then cooperation between O’Connor’s fiddle (slapdash and witty) and Salerno-Sonnenberg’s violin (precise and sharply syncopated) generates heat. And when the orchestra rises beneath them at the right times, this feels like Copland PLUS—a better, more authentically occupied version of his brand of open, American composing. There are more dissonances here to savor than in O’Connor’s folk/country based pieces, and so this work also sounds more urban and modern.
The remainder of this recording is mostly less striking. Mr. O’Connor and Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg play a duet version of “Appalachian Waltz” that is a textual treat of open-strings and peacefulness, but it feels like a sketch of the original rather than its own work. The rerecording of Mr. O’Connor’s “Johnny Appleseed Suite” (originally a piece to accompany a Garrison Keillor voiceover) is a gentle delight, but it doesn’t much rise above surface charm. Beginning as a simple folk song for guitar, piano and flute, it builds momentum in the first movement, then convinces us as a forceful dance tune when Mr. O’Connor himself is fiddling within the idiom during movement two. The remainder is nice when it gives a leading voice to the composer, but—with the exception of a forceful, melodic ending that suggests how simple music can built gravity with layers and conviction—this is not one for the ages.
The recording ends with what may be its best—and simplest—note. Mr. O’Connor has arranged the American staple, “Amazing Grace”, for string orchestra and fiddle soloist. Here, without trying to ape jazz or integrate Irish or bluegrass music, the orchestra and the fiddler just play together toward one purpose on a single great and timeless melody. Mr. O’Connor is able to improvise some, to scoop up to notes, to play his blues, and the orchestra is able to solemnly intone its I’s, IV’s, and V’s—the harmonies that unite classical music and the blues. Unforced and not trying to blow us away, it does the job better than any multi-movement concerto I’ve ever heard. I want to listen to it again.
I’d like to hear more of Mark O’Connor in any possible setting because his talent is unique and eye opening. But what I wish for most is a collection of spirituals and folk songs set to orchestral accompaniment, as gentle and clear and mournful as the “Double Violin Concerto” is clever. No need to show off, Mark!