Ace fiddler Mark O'Connor has made a name for himself as champion traditional fiddler, country music sideman and in jazz, but for about 20 years he has also composed classical music as a sideline. In 2009, O'Connor is rolling out his Americana Symphony, his first full-fledged orchestral work with no part for him to play as soloist. This is a reversal of the usual formula; more often it is the classical musician that turns to popular styles to let their long hair down, not the other way 'round. In an interview with AMG's Uncle Dave Lewis, Mark O'Connor shares his thinking on this symphony and some notion of what it's like to experience his own music from the other side of the proscenium arch.
AMG: Greetings, Mark, from Ann Arbor; this is Uncle Dave Lewis.
Mark O'Connor: A pleasure to hear from you, how are you?
AMG: A little under the weather, sorry to say, but I wasn't about to miss this opportunity to speak with you. I understand you are touring a lot these days, where are you calling from now?
MOC: Actually, I'm calling from home in New York City. I tour quite a bit on the weekends and just come back to New York through the week. Sometimes I take off for a bit longer, a week or two at a time, but generally I go out to where I need to be over the weekend, and then come home.
AMG: In your work, there's a gradual shift from being a champion traditional fiddler -- which is a world in which you still function -- to being a classical composer. What do you find are the common and uncommon elements between fiddling and classical music making, besides the fiddle itself?
MOC: That's a good question. My musical journey is about how these things connect. If there was a secret formula to my classical compositions, I would have to say that it's I am always on the lookout for bridges to cross between popular music and classical. At this point it has been 20 years since I composed my first string quartet -- that was in 1989 -- and since then I have noted that there are so many bridges between things that have not been fully discovered in what I call American classical composition. I am so glad that I set myself on that path. My early pieces were based on simple dances like the waltz, which certainly is a common interest, and at that time I made my reputation on writing dance-based pieces. Now I feel that my pieces are much deeper and much more confident.
AMG: In Bluegrass music -- which is not something you pursue exclusively, but is certainly something you've had contact with -- repertoire is king. It almost doesn't matter who you are, or how good you play, so much as it is how well your group can pull off "Flop Eared Mule." Was the rigidity of the repertoire in traditional fiddle music something that moved you towards classical composition as an outlet or was it another concern entirely that led you there?
MOC: No, I would say that it was almost exactly as you describe it. Every form of traditional music -- whether it is bluegrass or blues or whatever -- has its set requirements, and I have many friends who perform music in these traditions that do well staying within those boundaries. While I don't fault them for that, for me, I tend to wake up in the morning thinking about new ways to combine different kinds of music, and so the purely traditional approach is kind of confining. I'm just a different animal, and I've been that way ever since I was a little boy. Ultimately, I realized that I could compose my way out my predicament.
AMG: In regard to the Americana Symphony, I note that it has six movements rather than the traditional four, a structure that usually indicates a suite rather than a symphony. Please understand that I am playing the devil's advocate when I ask, how can you call that a symphony?
MOC: Well, remember that the Americana Symphony is also a set of variations on my Appalachia Waltz, and it seemed more effective to divide some of the ideas up into smaller movements. Traditional symphonic form does dictate four, but I decided to take advantage of the modern sense of it and apply the terminology more loosely. I even considered writing more movements, but I wanted it to come in at about 30-35 minutes, and the six I came up with work out to that. My Violin Concerto is what I am known for, and I wanted to make sure it was very clear that this was a different kind of piece for me.
AMG: So where did you gain your affinity in writing for brass and percussion? The opening movement, "Brass Fanfare: Wide Open Spaces," is scored exclusively for that combination; you don't even hear a violin until the second movement.
MOC: I opened my Second Concerto with a brass fanfare, and that was one of the things I've done that I really loved and was very proud of. Overall I have underplayed brass and percussion writing in my concertos because they are really loud instruments and tend to cover up the violin too much. That was one of the joys of writing the Americana Symphony as I was able to really bring these elements in as equal components for the first time. Also, as the opening of the symphony it seemed like a way to put my best foot forward and to set the stage orchestrally, not to divert the attention immediately into the dance movements. I wanted the jig and hoedown themes to interrupt the program, rather than to dominate it.
In composing the Americana Symphony, I started actually with the principal theme stated in the big brass fortissimo that appears in the finale, because I wanted to see if my theme survived such treatment. Then I backed up, and started again from the beginning. I sort of made sure of my destination like the settlers did on their journey westward.
AMG: Am I off the mark in observing that the modality of the fifth movement, "Soaring Eagle, Setting Sun," has an Asian-Pacific quality to it?
MOC: Indeed, I introduced some Asian motifs into the third movement; you can hear them winding around in the fugue there. What I'm doing is that I've discovered that there is a Middle-Eastern, Mediterranean strain in Appalachian culture -- it's subtle, but it's in there. It adds a very bold flavor to the fifth movement, "Soaring Eagle, Setting Sun," which is the journey up the cliff face of the Rocky Mountains. It is one big crescendo, beginning very quietly in the low strings. With each phrase, all done in canon, you progress to the top and it gradually increases in energy, volume and beauty -- but you can still feel a sense of struggle as you make your way up there. I think it sets up the finale really well.
Leonard Bernstein made a comment that many composers spend their lives writing the same piece over and over. I've thought about that, and when I wrote Appalachia Waltz in 1993 I discovered a three-part strategy that does typify the kinds of things I write: 1) melting pot culture, 2) the journey, and 3) the discovery of wide open spaces. Appalachia Waltz opens with an introduction and then it transitions out of something very busy -- melting pot culture. And then there is that passage -- [O'Connor hums] -- that is like the journey, of moving down the road. Then when we get to the third part -- [O'Connor hums again] -- that is the "wide open spaces." This last concept is very important to me, as I have been all around the world and have come into contact with Americans everywhere. It is not only the notion of the "land out West," but also a metaphorical frame of mind Americans have whether they live in 2000 or lived in 1600. The idea that follows from that is, "it will be a better day tomorrow," which is a totally unique perspective held among Americans, no matter where you are in the world. It is this optimism that's the driving spirit of the music.
AMG: So with the second work on the Americana Symphony disc, Concerto No. 6, "Old Brass," you finally step from behind the curtain and into the spotlight. How difficult is it making the transition from being the name at the bottom of the program to the name above the title?
MOC: I've already had several opportunities to check out the symphony from a seat in the audience, and I must say that it is a wonderful experience: to see it, and to hear it like that. Had I known, I probably wouldn't have written quite so many concertos! Right now, I'm just finishing my seventh, which is a triple concerto. If I programmed one of my concertos, each year, and circulated through the whole cycle four times, then I would be busy playing concertos for something like 30 years, right? So I wanted to compose something more seriously, and I spent quite some time talking to conductors and musicians and discovered that I do have a unique orchestral approach. With the Americana Symphony, I think it came at the right time; I didn't try to do it too early. A concerto should tell a story, but ultimately it's about the soloist and what they can do. A symphony is more like a novel; it should educate in addition to providing the entertainment you have with a concerto.
AMG: Mark, I really want to thank you for taking the time out of your busy concert schedule to speak to us about your new work, and I certainly hope you enjoy success with it.
MOC: Stay tuned! In May, look for my String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, played by a group made up of chamber music all-stars. It should prove eye-opening!
Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -
O'Connor: Americana Symphony - Brass Fanfare: Wide Open Spaces
Marin Alsop, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - O'Connor: Americana Symphony - Soaring Eagle, Setting Sun
Mark O'Connor, Marin Alsop, Concordia Orchestra - O'Connor: The Fiddle Concerto
Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor - O'Connor: Appalachia Waltz