Marin Alsop / Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Mark O'Connor: Americana Symphony

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Nashville-based fiddler Mark O'Connor first gained an international reputation in the classical sphere partly because of the sheer audacity of his country-classical fusions: they worked simply because getting the fiddle and the symphony orchestra in the same room, with something to say to each other, was an accomplishment in itself. O'Connor built on that reputation with his Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey albums, recorded with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and similarly inclined country crossover bassist Edgar Meyer. Those releases, cleverly abstracting details of Copland's musical language, created a pleasing classical Americana that was more subtle than it sounded and that, as a result, has proven durable on the sales lists. Now, with his Americana Symphony, O'Connor takes the bold step of dispensing with the fiddle completely (although there are solo violin passages). One might have expected little more than warmed-over Copland, given that the most distinctive element of the music has been removed, but the results are actually highly listenable. O'Connor finds the right balance of building on past accomplishments and pushing himself into new areas. The work is subtitled "Variations on Appalachia Waltz." While some commenters have suggested that this makes the work something less than a true symphony, O'Connor's variation technique is one of the piece's strongest features. The title track of the O'Connor/Ma/Meyer album appears in fragmentary form at first and is fully assembled only in the "Splendid Horizons" finale. For the listener who has heard the earlier composition, the effect is one of vague and gathering recollection, handled in a way that would have made perfect sense to a nineteenth century symphonist. It fits nicely as well with the work's overall theme of pioneer exploration, with threads of memory running through it. The weaknesses here are that Copland did these visions of the American West earlier and better, and that they were less than candid to boot; the West was not vast and empty, but vital and inhabited. And that O'Connor's tunes do not yet really stick in the head, although they go down easily. But the flavors of O'Connor's individual steps are fresh and original, especially the hints of Asian modalities in the second and third movements. The brass writing is modeled on Copland's, but is intelligently set off by the inclusion of O'Connor's sizable Violin Concerto No. 6 ("Old Brass") to round out the disc; espeically in its final fugue, the work has some nifty solutions to the problem of balancing a solo violin with the basic brass complement of the classic American symphonic sound. Anyone who has enjoyed O'Connor's work with Ma and Meyer will greet this new work with interest, and Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony are sympathetic and polished interpreters. The concerto, performed by the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston and recorded separately, does not seem to be quite of a piece with the symphony sonically, although musically the pairing is ideal.

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