The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s artist-in-residence sleeps four hours a night. Why?
Since starting the job last spring, Mark O’Connor has played two formal gigs with the CSO, trained local students and teachers in his O’Connor Method of string playing, dropped in for concerts at breweries and fundraisers, embarked on a frenzied 45-day holiday tour with the Grammy-winning O’Connor Band, organized his first international string camp in Charlotte, reawakened an interest in guitar playing that had lain dormant for 20 years and led his bluegrass band onstage for two sold-out N.C. concerts with the Zac Brown Band in October. That went so well that Brown has agreed to produce the band’s next album and use them as an opening act on his 2018 summer tour.
Meanwhile, the CSO will play O’Connor’s “Americana Symphony” Feb. 2-3 in an all-U.S. program with George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and both sets of Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs,” done by the Charlotte Symphony Chorus. For the first time in at least four decades, the CSO will anchor one of its classical concerts with a 35-minute work by a living American.
Hmmm … maybe this guy should spend less time in bed.
I’ve always felt the great story of America is inclusiveness, how it took people from all over the world to create our culture. You hear that in fiddle music.
Charlotte Symphony artist-in-residence Mark O’Connor
“It’s amazing what you can do when you take back those extra hours of sleep,” says O’Connor. “This week, I wrote three vocal songs, which I never did before. My musical life keeps blossoming.”
Symphony ‘struggled a bit’
The 56-year-old chameleon made his name in the late ’70s and ’80s, playing guitar and violin with the David Grisman Quintet, Dixie Dregs and Strength in Numbers while appearing on countless country, jazz and bluegrass albums. He leaped into the classical world with a Fiddle Concerto in 1992 and has run his musical train on parallel tracks for 25 years.
He and wife Maggie, an accomplished fiddler who plays and sings in the O’Connor Band, moved to Charlotte in spring 2016. His Facebook post suggesting a CSO partnership drew a positive response from the orchestra. It had never employed an artist-in-residence, but new president/CEO Mary Deissler had used them elsewhere. She and music director Christopher Warren-Green, a British-born conductor who appreciates American composers, saw a double boon: O’Connor could draw audiences who skipped classical concerts and show classically trained players new ways to think about musicianship.
“The first time we played one of Mark’s pieces, we struggled a bit,” says Warren-Green, thinking back to the Altsounds concert with the O’Connor Band last May. “The people in his band are virtuosos, and you could see our musicians watching them carefully. Now all our fiddlers get it.”
It’s a powerful statement when kids play these out in the world. It’s like we’re creating an army of string players spreading the word.
Besides O’Connor’s “Johnny Appleseed Suite,” that concert included the brass fanfare from “Americana Symphony,” a long and well-disguised set of variations on O’Connor’s “Appalachia Waltz.” Warren-Green decided to perform the whole symphony this winter to show O’Connor isn’t just a fiddler who spotlights his own virtuosity.
“Some of his soulful, slow tunes are gorgeous,” says Warren-Green. “All composers borrow from various sources, but in this case, I can’t find anything borrowed from anywhere. The funny thing is, the string players weren’t the ones to raise their eyebrows at the complexity of the writing. It was the brass players.”
O’Connor waited 14 years after the Fiddle Concerto to bring out his symphony, egged on by conductors (especially Kenneth Schermerhorn of the Nashville Symphony) who sought a spiritual successor to Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
The first time we played one of Mark’s pieces, we struggled a bit. The people in his band are virtuosos, and you could see our musicians watching them carefully. Now all our fiddlers get it.
CSO music director Christopher Warren-Green
He titled the six movements “Open Plains Hoedown,” “Splendid Horizons” and the like, blending classical techniques – canons, variations – with influences from traditional fiddling sources. His piece represents the westward journey of people colonizing our continent, changing it and themselves along the way.
“I’ve always felt the great story of America is inclusiveness, how it took people from all over the world to create our culture. You hear that in fiddle music: native Americans, African-Americans, Europeans, Latinos, Middle Easterners all contribute to the sound of the American violin.
“My piece deals with humanity’s fundamental need to explore, to find a new life. There’s tension in it – people were displaced along that western migration – but the longing for a better tomorrow is something we all have in common.”
Dill Pickle Rag and a ‘secret weapon’
Restlessness has served O’Connor well for the half-century he’s made music. When the Suzuki Method of string playing dissatisfied him, he laid the groundwork for a different one. When musical genres seemed too limiting, he skipped nimbly among them.
That’s why, when assistant conductor Christopher James Lees invited the O’Connors to drop in at an informal gig at NoDa Brewing Company, they could. Or why Mark and Maggie zipped through “Dill Pickle Rag” for potential donors at a fundraiser, why they led a 90-minute informance at Northwest School of the Arts, why they have certified string teachers hereabouts in the O’Connor Method. (Deissler calls Maggie’s two-for-one involvement “our secret weapon.”)
Sometimes the symphony benefits directly from his hiring: When he and the band played on the “Magic of Christmas” shows, Deissler says, “We heard whoops and hollers from people who might never have bought tickets otherwise. Now that he’s established a wider reputation, we can work with bluegrass organizations who’ll promote our concerts.”
Sometimes there’s reflected prestige. The CSO doesn’t directly support the local O’Connor Method String Camp, which will run July 22-27 at Myers Park Baptist Church. Yet O’Connor calls the organization “a valuable sounding board,” and some of its musicians may teach or send their students. (Applications are underway; O’Connor says the first came from the Czech Republic.)
If one thing reflects O’Connor’s personality, that camp does. Students learn string technique, songwriting, improvisation and composition. There’ll be dancing, jam sessions, recitals and informal get-togethers after classes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. He and Maggie may play alone, together or with their band. There’s an emotional component, too: The Daniel Pearl instruments will change hands.
‘An army of string players’
Pearl, the Wall Street Journal writer murdered by Pakistani terrorists in 2002, also fiddled. (O’Connor played at his memorial service.) Jonathan Cooper, the Maine violin-maker who crafted an instrument for O’Connor, gave the Pearl family one in memoriam. They donated it to O’Connor for his camps, where an accomplished student borrows it each year. Over time, that violin was joined by a second violin, a viola and a cello.
“It’s the idea that music can fight hatred,” says O’Connor. “It’s a powerful statement when kids play these out in the world. It’s like we’re creating an army of string players spreading the word.”
This proselytizing bent has served both O’Connor and the CSO, which reaches out in ever-widening circles to show this region what an orchestra can do: not just classical concerts but film scores, opera and ballet accompaniment, interpretations of jazz or pop music or even bluegrass.
Deissler and Warren-Green call themselves “conservationists and pioneers,” preserving masterworks while they dig for new repertoire. Their success with O’Connor makes her want to hire a composer-in-residence, possibly a woman or person of color. (An EarShot concert March 1 hints at the future: It offers local premieres of works by Iranian-born Niloufar Iravani, Korea’s Jihyun Kim and Colombian-born Felipe Nieto.)
O’Connor, meanwhile, finds himself in a perennial renaissance. He wants the O’Connor Band to “sustain itself without my focusing on it all the time” and made a recent visit to Nashville to secure support. He aims to educate more people each year through new camps, classes and music books. He'd like to continue his relationship with the CSO somehow, after it formally ends this May. If he sleeps a bit less, he might even spend more time composing.
Right now, he’s as delighted as a teenager with his Baxendale custom-built guitar. Tendonitis and bursitis in his right elbow forced him to set down his guitar and mandolin in the ’90s. (His bow arm didn’t hurt when he fiddled.)
But over the years, “I got a lot smarter about the ways to raise a window or open a door. I’d thought my guitar-playing days were over, but I picked up a mandolin one night at an O’Connor Band concert and played a little – and it didn’t hurt! It all clicked in my mind after that. I remembered my right-hand technique, and two or three months later, it had all come back to me.”
Thinking about his years as a teenaged guitarist reminds him of his philosophy, one the CSO shares: “So many artists run into walls. The ones who don’t knock the walls down don’t succeed.
“There were a lot of ‘nos’ and no-sayers out there, people who told me to leave classical music alone or stick to writing it for the violin. I was able to recover from that negativity and defeat it. Now I want to spread that philosophy to teachers and students everywhere.”
Charlotte Symphony Orchestra
What: George Gershwin’s “An American In Paris,” Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” (with the CSO Chorus) and Mark O’Connor’s “Americana Symphony.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 2-3. Pre-concert talks at 6:30 p.m. may include O’Connor.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.