An Appalachian Christmas: Classical hits with a bluegrass twist

Mark O'Connor (far right) with members of his family band, photo J.D. Pittman

The fiddler stands alone, playing a gentle waltz suggestive of winter. You can almost feel the icy sting of snow on your cheeks as it blows through a holler. You can almost feel the lure of a warm hearth as the high-lonesome notes intermittently arrange themselves into bits and pieces of “Silent Night.” It’s just a YouTube video, but the masterful performance of this curiously mournful yet devotional composition, called “Appalachia Waltz,” evokes nostalgia for Christmases gone by.

The fiddler is Mark O’Connor, 58, a virtuoso who regularly crosses musical genres, from bluegrass and Western swing to jazz and classical. He has played with such luminaries as Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis, and his compositions have been recorded by world-famous orchestras. O’Connor tours annually with An Appalachian Christmas, a concert based on his 2011 album of the same name. He can hold an audience rapt all by himself, though since 2015 he’s been joined by his family band.

Although the homespun yet powerful music doesn’t require much ornamentation to get audiences into the holiday spirit, on this Christmas Eve, the Mark O’Connor Band enlarges its sound in high classical style, backed by the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.

“There is quite a range within the Christmas music arrangements I have created for this project,” O’Connor says. “Some are very peaceful and reflective, and others are just a good ol’ bluegrass hoedown.”

Santa Fe Symphony’s principal conductor, Guillermo Figueroa, says that mixing bluegrass or other popular music with classical music isn’t a new idea. O’Connor has been doing it for years, and the tradition goes back centuries. “Mozart would introduce folk tunes into his music all the time. When waltzes became the popular music of the day back at the end of the 19th century, lots of composers wrote waltzes and polkas into the symphonic context.” Though Figueroa hasn’t done this sort of concert during the conductor’s three years with Santa Fe Symphony, he and the musicians consider this challenge to be a great adventure. Figueroa is also a violinist, and he is looking forward to getting to discuss techniques with O’Connor.

“I want to talk to him about everything that goes into what he does versus what I do,” he says.

Technically, the only difference between a fiddler and a violinist is the type of music they are playing. It’s the same stringed instrument, but a fiddler tends to play folk music, like bluegrass, klezmer, or traditional Irish, while a violinist plays classical and everything else. Not only does O’Connor do both, the three-time Grammy Award winner combines these roles. Children learn to play the violin using his teaching method, which he calls “a new American school of string playing.”

In 2014, O’Connor started a firestorm in the violin community when he criticized the Suzuki method and its creator, Shinichi Suzuki. Writing online, he posited that his method is superior to the Suzuki method by which generations of children have learned to play the instrument — usually beginning with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” O’Connor prefers his own starter tune, the somewhat more complex and sophisticated-sounding “Boil ’em Cabbage Down.” Santa Fe audiences will hear the piece at the Christmas concert, where it will segue into “Frosty the Snowman.”

O’Connor has been playing the fiddle to great acclaim since childhood. As a teenager, he was invited to the White House to perform for President Ronald Reagan. He trained with legendary Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson and with French-Italian jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, who inspired him to form Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio in 2001 with guitarist Frank Vignola and bass player Jon Burr. Among O’Connor’s many classically oriented compositions is the Fiddle Concerto, recorded in 1994 for an album by the same name. According to his website, the piece has become the most performed violin concerto composed in the last half-century. It was commissioned by Santa Fe Symphony in 1993; the other piece on the album, a string quartet for violin, viola, and double bass, was commissioned by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1990.

The members of the Mark O’Connor Band are O’Connor; his son, Forrest, a former Tennessee State Mandolin Champion; his daughter-in-law, Kate Lee O’Connor, on fiddle and vocals; his wife, Maggie, on fiddle and vocals; and National Flatpick Guitar Champion Joe Smart. Forrest sings “Now It Belongs to You” at the Christmas concert. The song, written by Steve Wariner for O’Connor’s 1991 album, The New Nashville Cats, is about passing a fiddle down through generations of a family.

“The gift of giving musical instruments to children is a great message to be sending,” O’Connor says. “When Forrest sings the words, he knows the story firsthand as he experienced it. My career mandolin was handed down to him the same way.”

An Appalachian Christmas begins with Leroy Anderson’s Christmas Festival Overture, which will be played by the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra before the Mark O’Connor Band takes the stage. Figueroa says this piece features many traditional carols. “And at some point, the orchestra will play Jim Stephenson’s ‘[A Holly and Jolly] Sing Along,’ and we’ll invite the audience to sing along.” He says the “big work” for the orchestra is Movement VI from O’Connor’s Americana Symphony, which was originally recorded in 2009 by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop. O’Connor and the orchestra will play Movement V from O’Connor’s Improvised Violin Concerto. Figueroa explains that while the orchestra plays their parts note for note from sheet music, O’Connor performs and improvises solo in the tradition of a bluegrass jam.

“The violin part changes every time he performs it. I’ve never heard him do it live, only on Youtube. So it will be fascinating to compare that with whatever he will do in our performance.” ◀

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(1) comment

Micki Leventhal

I love learning about new musical pleasures from Jennifer. Thanks for another informative an beautifully written article.

Welcome to the discussion.

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