By NANCY IVES
I was brought up loving the European classical canon. Schumann, Dvorak and Ravel were childhood favorites. I didn’t identify all that closely with the old-timey popular songs my family would gather around the piano to sing.
Nor could I look to the music of other cultures. I had long envied friends who had a cultural tradition in their families – a Chinese grandmother, Italian roots, Scandinavian traditions, that sort of thing. But since both sides of my family had, for the most part, come to the U.S. in early 17th century, I didn’t have any ethnic heritage I could discern.
Then one day in graduate school, a professor played a recording of Charles Ives singing and playing piano and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. In college, I’d learned that the first great American composer was my great-grandfather’s cousin, a distant but real relationship. On the recording, the timbre of his voice was uncannily like that of my Grandpa Leo Ives, who I had heard singing barbershop quartets all through my childhood. I realized that I did indeed have a cultural heritage: American.
World renowned violinist Mark O’Connor understands that that heritage includes American popular music as well as classical music. On Dec. 14, I will have the pleasure of playing with Mark O’Connor at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, in a program titled “An Appalachian Christmas.” Presented by All Classical Portland and sponsored by Bob’s Red Mill, this will be the fourth year of what has become an annual Portland tradition.
The music on this concert also reflects older major traditions: the familiar music of the Christmas season, primarily centuries-old and European in origin, and America’s own homegrown roots music legacy. O’Connor’s synthesis of those two venerable traditions is part of a bigger journey, one that I resonate with. Playing with a group centered on the bluegrass tradition may seem far afield for a symphony cellist like me, but playing music that so seamlessly bridges styles to create its own brand of Americana has an element of “coming home” for me.
I first played with Mark O’Connor nearly two decades ago in the Cascade Festival Orchestra in Bend, when he played one of his violin concertos. I was immediately impressed with his distinctive and virtuosic playing, and came away with a sense that he was developing a unique voice as a composer. I heard him again in a concert of his works with Chamber Music Northwest in July 2008, and that unique voice was on full display, surpassing my expectations. Performed with classical heavyweights Ida Kavafian, Paul Neubauer and Matt Haimovitz, O’Connor’s string quartets and duos (cadenzas from duo concertos) were technically dazzling and completely at home in a chamber music setting. This was music that demands extreme precision and fidelity to what’s on the page, the kind I play in the vast majority of my musical work. But it’s not primarily the kind of music he’s playing these days with his family band.
A Northwest native born in Seattle, Mark O’Connor came to the attention of the classical music community with his compositions for and collaborations with leading instrumentalists, but he is also revered in the bluegrass community, famous for his dominance of fiddle competitions as a teenager in the 1970s, and highly respected in jazz circles. This is an artist with chart-topping albums in seven genres! As if that weren’t enough versatility, he has created a substantial violin method using traditional American tunes as the main repertoire.
What makes Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian-inspired music quintessentially American? What does that even mean? I think you know it when you hear it. As diverse as our nation is, it boasts rich veins of folk music known to us all. In this case, it is from a tradition that melds Anglo-Celtic and African influences, a tradition that has fueled branches of the musical family tree such as bluegrass, folk, country, rock and jazz. Rather than trying to fit into conventional molds, O’Connor has applied his particular musical genius in a range of ways that feel authentic and speak to his sense of home and belonging. This is not music written with an agenda to bring classical music to the masses nor, conversely, to reinvigorate classical music with folk influences. Mark O’Connor’s music reflects his life experience as a fiddle virtuoso who grew beyond any genre.
To my mind, one of the most important trends in classical music over the course of my professional career has been the embrace and incorporation of popular musical styles into modern composition for the concert stage. Although for many years it was frowned upon, many composers with high stature in the classical realm now successfully incorporate popular influences of all kinds into their musical writing, resulting in a proliferation of distinctly American sounds well beyond Gershwin’s use of jazz. I have to think that Charles Ives, who drew on the vernacular of his time and place in his pioneering American classical compositions, would be delighted, both with the quality and authenticity of the music being produced and with its widespread acceptance in academia and concert halls.
Those American traditions will converge in Wednesday night’s performance: a holiday concert with an Americana twist. The program features the O’Connor Band, a group built around Mark’s family, which has just released their first album, Grammy-Nominated Coming Home. With this recording, his 42nd by my count, Mark O’Connor is indeed coming home, back to his bluegrass roots. If there is anything from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker in this concert, it will be surely be done with a bluegrass flavor.
The program is also sure to include favorites from the Grammy-winning fiddler’s classical hits, such as Appalachia Waltz. (I can say that with authority, since I will perform the cello parts crafted by Yo-Yo Ma. It’s not a bad day when you get to fill in for Yo-Yo!) These pieces are very beautiful and not technically demanding, but because the band has a tight schedule on their national tour, I will have only one quick rehearsal with which to fit in with musicians who have played the material as many times as I’ve played J.S. Bach’s Prelude in G Major.
An additional challenge I face as I prepare for this concert is that these musicians are master improvisers and their music breathes and flexes with the inspiration of the moment, even more than in strictly classical (whatever that means these days!) chamber music. This is a refreshing challenge for me. I like to think I perform with freshness and immediacy – certainly that’s my aim – but I have to move out of the somewhat rigid mindset of an orchestra musician to hang with these folks. I’m using music and recordings to prepare – I have to pick out Yo-Yo’s part from a recording for one song, itself a novelty for me – and I will be interested to see how much Mark’s current take on the pieces varies from those performances.
I’ve already learned some lessons from these genre-busting masters. For one of his appearances with the Oregon Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma played the solo version of Appalachia Waltz as an encore. Aware that he had been playing a Baroque cello and also folk-inspired music for the Silk Road Project, I asked him about something I had been thinking about. I had just done some studio recordings with folk duo Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer and found that at first, my sound was too thick and I used too much vibrato. To give myself a framework to fast track the adjustment from Strauss and Brahms to folk music, I had told myself to play Baroque-style – lighter bow, barely any vibrato — and it fit perfectly. So I asked Yo-Yo: did he agree that the technical approach for non-classical styles and performance practice-inspired Baroque playing were essentially the same? He did. I felt wonderfully validated. Needless to say, I will be tapping into that insight for this concert. Two seemingly different traditions converge again.
So much of our shared mythology around the holidays is about coming home. Playing and sharing music that is truly American taps into that sense of home, imbuing in us a deep feeling of peace and belonging — this is where I’m from, this is where I live, these are my people, and this is my history. That’s part of what is so compelling about what Mark O’Connor is doing with his music. And it’s also what makes An Appalachian Christmas such a joyous holiday experience when shared with the people you love.
Mark O’Connor & Friends perform An Appalachian Christmas at 7:30 pm Wednesday, December 14, at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Tickets available online, at the Portland’5 Box Office, TicketsWest outlets or by phone 800.273.1530. Donors to All Classical Portland save $5 on all tickets. Call (503) 943-5828 for details.
Nancy Ives is Principal Cello of the Oregon Symphony, Instructor of Chamber Music at Lewis & Clark College, a member of fEARnoMUSIC and a frequent guest performer with groups from Portland Cello Project to Chamber Music Northwest.