An instrument of magic Music: Virtuoso Mark O'Connor has earned the genius label.


Some people see Mark O'Connor standing in front of a symphony orchestra, bow in hand and his instrument tucked under his chin, and consider him a violinist. Others know him for the solos he has added to dozens upon dozens of country singles and call him a fiddler.

There are even those who pay less attention to the type of music he plays than to his extraordinary proficiency on his instrument and dub him a genius, pure and simple.

But for the 35-year-old musician, it's all pretty much one and the same.

"My career is not as much about separation as kind of blurring distinctions and bringing it all together," says O'Connor, over the phone from his home in Nashville. "So when I play in more of a folk setting, I bring maybe a classical type of compositional consciousness to it. And when I play with orchestra and chamber musicians, I bring my folk influences to the music."

"He is so virtuosic at what he does," says cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has recorded and toured with O'Connor. "He's a maniac. He does a lot of [technical] things that I think are part of the Celtic tradition, but also things that he's figured out on his own. Because he has that kind of facility. He's tall and lanky, but his bow-arm is like rubber. Meaning that it's perfectly loose, that He can therefore put it into any configuration of patterns that he wants to."

That much is made plain on O'Connor's current album, "Midnight on the Water" (the basis for his concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tomorrow afternoon). A collection of solo performances on violin, mandolin and guitar, it stands as a testament to both his varied interests and his virtuosity.

Listen to the six caprices he wrote and performed, and you hear the work of a player and composer who fully understands the passion and playfulness -- not to mention the sense of structure and technique -- that fueled the famed caprices of composers Peitro Locatelli and Nicola Paganini.

Cue up one of the album's improvisations, and what comes through is a bluesy joviality that draws on everything from the gypsy-inflected jazz of Stephane Grappelli to the rip-roaring Western Swing of Bob Wills. As for "Midnight On the Water/Bonaparte's Retreat," the 7 1/2 -minute medley is a mini-compendium of fiddle lore, drawing freely from Celtic, Scandinavian and American old-timey fiddle traditions.

L And that's not counting what he does on guitar and mandolin.

This eclectic, tri-instrument format O'Connor has worked within since he was a pre-teen, playing in and around Seattle. What's all the more astonishing is that he's essentially self-taught.

"You don't go to a school, necessarily, to learn what I do," says O'Connor, who these days is professor of fiddling at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

On the one hand, following his own muse clearly broadened O'Connor's scope musically. By the time he turned 20, he had not only made a name for himself in fiddle circles, but was wowing jazz fusion fans with his work in the Dixie Dregs. Still, it wasn't until he moved to Nashville in the mid-'80s, at the invitation of producer and guitarist Chet Atkins, that O'Connor truly made his mark.

Voted the Country Music Association's Musician of the Year for five years running, O'Connor is perhaps the biggest non-singing star in country music. "He came upon the session scene in Nashville and just knocked everybody over," says keyboardist John Hobbs, a veteran Nashville session musician and producer.

"When you're in the same room with him, his genius is so apparent. And the thing about Mark is, he never stops playing when he has a fiddle in his hands. In the recording studio, you do a take on a song, then you go back [to the control room] to listen.

"Well, as he walks down the long hall to get to the control room, he's playing the whole time. It's almost like [the violin] is another part of his body, he's so in tune with it."

"Playing the fiddle, that's his way of thinking," says Ma. "He's fiddling, but then, he's listening to whatever else is going on around him at the same time. So he's very aware of what's going on. He can talk and follow a conversation. And yet the fingers are moving, figuring out different permutations and patterns."

To Ma, the most amazing thing about O'Connor's constant noodling is that the flow of music is never impeded by the kind of technical considerations that bedevil other players. "Usually, you have to go through a certain translation," he says. "It's, 'OK, I want this, therefore I must do that.' Right? So there's something that's in-between.

"But with Mark, there's so little impedance between what comes out and what he's actually thinking. That's one of the qualities that floors people. It's his pure thinking. It just comes out."

O'Connor isn't just a player and improviser, though. He's also a composer and has begun to make as much a mark in that arena as he has in popular music. In addition to crossover projects like the "Appalachia Waltz" album he recorded with Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer, O'Connor has slowly added to the classical repertoire.

His Fiddle Concerto has been performed by numerous orchestras (including the Baltimore Symphony), and O'Connor performed excerpts from the work with violinist Gil Shahan on the "Tribute to Israel's 50th Anniversary" on CBS. Then, on May 6, his Fiddle Sonata will have its premiere at the Library of Congress.

Best of all, Ma has been using O'Connor's "Appalachia Waltz" as an encore in his recent performances of the Bach Cello Suites.

"I saw him play it in New York City in a beautiful church about four weeks ago, and it was stunning," says O'Connor. "He didn't announce the piece from the stage, so nobody knew what it was. And people were murmuring, like, 'Was that something that we don't know from Bach?' It was really wild to be in the audience and feel all that."

Ma says the reason he decided to use "Appalachia Waltz" was that it seemed the perfect compliment to the ideas Bach was exploring in the suites.

"What Bach did was, he took all these dances from all the known world around him and put them in suite form. Old dances, new dances, courtly dances, peasant dances. And what Mark did was, he took this piece that is somewhat based on the Norwegian fiddling style, with the drone and that, wrote it in Santa Fe, and called it 'Appalachia Waltz.'

"It's just so moving," he adds. It's traditional. It is new. It comes from many different places, but it's authentic. So after a long Bach evening, rather than play more Bach, this is the perfect thing."

Mark O'Connor

When: Tomorrow, 3 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $16-$34

Call: 410-783-8000

Sundial: To hear excerpts from "Midnight On the Water," call 410-783-1800 (code 6132).

Pub Date: 5/02/98

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