Friday evening, February 17, 2012, Mark O’Connor performed his brand-new solo recital “American Classics” to a packed audience at the historic Lyric Theater in downtown Blacksburg, Virginia. Rarely have I spent $160 so well (for four tickets – it was a family event). O’Connor performed the entirety of his newly minted O’Connor Method Volume 3, thus anyone who wants the set-list can look it up. The selections are well-chosen for an intermediate method book. For a recital, a few “extra” fiddling variations tacked onto the pieces showcasing O’Connor’s great skill would have been welcome, that’s just my opinion. There is quite a following of folk and bluegrass music in this part of the country, so the American folk songs, fiddle tunes, and a few O’Connor originals, were all well received by the Blacksburg audience.
In the second half of the show, O’Connor also performed an excerpt from his Double Violin Concerto with Miami-based violinist Ashley Liberty, a compelling young artist with great warmth and plenty of technical firepower to meet the challenges of the O'Connor Double. The accompanist for the evening was Daniel Strange, a Miami-based pianist (primarily a jazz man and also Ms. Liberty’s husband – they do make quite a handsome couple). O’Connor left the stage and Strange covered Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” in a solo arrangement rich with harmonic surprises and dazzling improvised stretches; as a jazz lover and amateur jazz pianist myself, I can hardly wait for his upcoming solo CD. Appalachian Waltz was performed as an encore, in a trio arrangement with Liberty and Strange.
During the concert I made a few random observations about O’Connor’s playing. Please understand that I am not in a position to criticize an acknowledged virtuoso, but only to observe. First, he uses a shoulder rest. Chalk one up for the SR crowd! Second, he was using an electric pickup. I’m not sure why a solo violin recital in smaller venue (The Lyric Theater holds just under 500) would need electrification, but perhaps this approach allows O’Connor to realize a consistent sound across all venues and genres, or maybe it allows him to play a longer show from town to town – he did perform last night for two solid hours – over a career that has spanned over 35 years on the road. I couldn't tell if he was using it all the time, though. Third, he took a few swipes of rosin a couple of times during the show, but I could not see what kind. Fourth, I have the suspicion that he was working on quite a cold last night, as he was audibly sniffling and had that stuffy-nose voice at the microphone. He never complained of it once though. He was as genial and professional a performer as I have seen. Finally, after every tune O’Connor got this boyish grin on his face, usually directed toward his accompanist, as if to say, “Yeah! We nailed that!” It’s obvious he still extracts a great deal of pleasure for playing something well for an audience, and that he doesn’t take his own skill or his audience for granted. During one moment during the show, he leaked that Ken Burns had just decided to use a couple of O’Connor works (perhaps a symphony movement and “Appalachian Waltz” as I recall) in his upcoming documentary on the Roosevelts. O’Connor seemed genuinely tickled by that news.
In the lobby O’Connor gave away hundreds of CDs including his new CD “American Classics” which is all the same tunes that he played last night, plus a bonus track of “America the Beautiful” as recorded on “A Prairie Home Companion.” I listened to the CD today, and I guess it won’t surprise anyone if I say that it was more fun to hear from a live stage. Still I would gladly have bought the album, and I probably will buy a few to use as gifts, because I just think it’s a wonderful thing to listen to. During the concert, O’Connor said that one of the benefits of having 35 years of experience as a concert performer is that he can do a recording like “American Classics.” I inferred that his stature as the preeminent statesman of American music (a richly deserved title) allows him to cut a CD of tastefully arranged, simple tunes that most of us could play (albeit perhaps not as well as he) and still have it blast to the top-selling list on Amazon within a couple of days. It’s true that very few performers could do that. But I say "good for him" because everything doesn't need to be technically dazzling to be great music.
O’Connor also offered the opinion that these songs should be considered as “American classical music,” but this is one rare point on which he and I will have to disagree. I believe there is great American classical music, and it includes (but is certainly not limited to) many of the works of Gershwin, Copland, Williams, Ives, Piston, and O’Connor himself! His double violin concerto is a great artistic work – but it is not in the same category of music as “Boil ‘Em Cabbage Down.” Whether it is in the same category as other legendary “double” concertos is for others, including Father Time, to judge.
On the previous day O'Connor spent time with students at Virginia Tech and youngsters involved in the VT outreach music program. The VT community is grateful to him for having made his time and talent available to us.
Overall I enjoyed the recital tremendously and I was impressed with O’Connor as a musician and as a performer. I’ll be buying his three method books for my daughter (currently finishing Suzuki Book 4) and for me. They'll be fun to play through, and perhaps one day we can play along with the CD.