Mark O'Connor: String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3

Mark O'Connor / Matt Haimovitz / Ida Kavafian / Paul Neubauer

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Mark O'Connor: String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3 Review

by James Manheim

The transformation of Mark O'Connor from country fiddler to classical composer has gone through several stages, which is all to the good. He began with some progressive bluegrass recordings that would now be called chamber folk, joined Yo-Yo Ma in the spectacularly successful crossover Appalachian Journey project, wrote several pieces of soundtrack music, and has penned some accessible orchestral scores in a Copland-esque idiom. The series of string quartets on which he embarked in the late 2000s decade seems to mark yet another new stage. The subtitles "Bluegrass" for the String Quartet No. 2 and "Old-Time" for the String Quartet No. 3 recorded here don't mean quite what you might think, and indeed the listener who comes to this music hoping that the instruments of the string quartet will replicate the sounds and harmonies of bluegrass or old-time music may emerge disappointed. O'Connor is attempting not to write quartets in the style of bluegrass or old-time country music but instead to make use of the fiddle styles specific to those genres. These are related to each other, but not the same; bluegrass is, as Alan Lomax once said, folk music in overdrive, and O'Connor's music fully reflects that. The other quartets in the series make use of other kinds of American fiddle music. This use of fiddle style is simultaneously a broader and a more difficult proposition than simply transferring tunes and harmonies to a classical medium, and O'Connor rises to the challenges. He doesn't sound like any other composer here, although the music has been compared with what might happen if Bartók had taken up some traditional American traditions. The comparison is useful; O'Connor builds structures out of rhythm, texture, and attack rather than by quoting tunes, and his harmonic palette is more modern here than in most of his other music. In the "Bluegrass" quartet the vigorous rhythmic drive of the source material is not restricted to the fiddle, but is deployed in all the instruments, resulting in some real virtuoso string quartet writing that must be a thrill to hear live; it is to be hoped that the all-star quartet of violinist Ida Kavafian, O'Connor himself, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist Matt Haimovitz can be heard playing this work in person for many years. The bluesy slow movement of the String Quartet No. 3 is a highlight of that work; it seems at first to offer a relaxed, tonal interlude, but the blues material builds to a unique semi-ostinato in the middle of the movement. O'Connor's knowledge of American country music has always been deeper than Copland's, and here he makes something of that knowledge. This album represents a major addition to the repertory of American chamber music.

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