O’CONNOR Americana Symphony, “Variations on Appalachia Waltz.”1 Violin Concerto No. 6, “Old Brass”2 • Marin Alsop, cond; Baltimore SO;1 Mark O’Connor (vn); Joel Smirnoff, cond; Pro Arte CO of Boston2 • OMAC 12 (67:37)
Viotti wrote 29 violin concertos; Spohr, 15;Read more Vieuxtemps, seven; and Wieniawski, two. The combined total for the violinists of the golden age, Heifetz, Francescatti, Milstein, Oistrakh, and Stern: zero. Those who lament that the roles of performer and composer have separated in modern times can take consolation in the ambitious output of fiddler Mark O’Connor, who, perhaps because he doesn’t directly compete with today’s traditional virtuosos (largely, with a few notable exceptions, non-composers), can experiment more freely, fusing more diverse musical styles. In any case, he’s now approaching Vieuxtemps’s total and, at his age, seems destined to pass the older master. Now, he’s written a symphony (2006) in the form of variations on his popular Appalachia Waltz. And when did the last violinist compose a symphony?
O’Connor has provided a sort of programmatic commentary on his six-section symphonic work (“Brass Fanfare: Wide Open Spaces”; “New World Fanciful Dance”; “Different Paths Towards Home”; “Open Plains Hoedown”; “Soaring Eagle, Setting Sun”; and “Theme: Splendid Horizons”), with the theme stated straightforwardly only at the end. The first movement, or variation, suggests the sound that has come to be associated with American music in the works of Harris, Copland, Schuman, and, more recently, John Williams, though it’s hardly stale and derivative. The second movement, according to O’Connor, suggests an Irish jig refracted into many ethnic bands through a prism of highly colorful orchestration. The third movement, more somber, lets fly another arrow in O’Connor’s orchestral quiver, making solemnly imposing statements. Like the second movement, the fourth represents a dance, this time a hoe-down, and once again displays a kaleidoscope of styles, while the fifth begins with a lugubrious quasi-ostinato theme, producing an effect similar to that of Mahler’s parody of Frère Jacques in his First Symphony—without the sardonic overtones—or the opening of the last movement of Respighi’s Pines of Rome. As does Respighi’s triumphant procession, this one proceeds inexorably to its climax, often contrapuntally. I don’t remember being impressed by so masterly a demonstration of orchestral, compositional, or polyphonic technique in the first of O’Connor’s works for violin and orchestra that I heard—Fiddle Concerto—though it seemed heartening that at last a violinist had attempted to compose a concerto for his own use. O’Connor’s harmonic style, like that of the fiddling that made him famous, suggests a diatonicism less chromatic than the Romantic orchestral textures in which he’s clothed his materials. The engineers have showcased the orchestra’s seemingly authoritative performance in exceptionally clear, sharply defined recorded sound, featuring a warm and rich string sound and cleanly etched brass proclamations.
O’Connor also provided specific programmatic suggestions for his Sixth Violin Concerto, subtitled “Old Brass” (a term used to refer to those of mixed African-American and Native American heritage) and cast in three movements (“The Road Is Smooth”; “Spanish Moss, Black Water”; and Fugue in Six Parts, “Grace and Charm”). The idea came to O’Connor, he claims, when he visited a Frank Lloyd residence in South Carolina.
The Concerto opens with solo figuration, but the first movement interlaces sections of fiddling and more violinistic, lyrical passages. The folk-like elements in the movement sound occasionally compatible, coupling portamentos that seem more typical of idiomatic fiddling with Ernest Bloch’s rhapsodic Hebraic violinistic expressivity. The second movement allusively limns O’Connor’s impression of Wright’s concept of “black water,” while the final movement demonstrates the composer’s contrapuntal skill at working polyphonic elements into a solo concerto (recall that the violin drops out of the fugues in the first and third movements of Goldmark’s Concerto). It’s capped off by an extended, tangy, and highly virtuosic cadenza that should settle for all time any lingering question about O’Connor’s violinistic brilliance.
Though the Concerto’s materials draw heavily from O’Connor’s fiddling experience and expressive devices, his playing sounds more violinistic, though his music doesn’t swoop, as so often does that of the late Romantic composers for the instrument, from the instrument’s lowest to its uppermost registers. The recorded sound, if it doesn’t exhibit the bite of that accorded to the Symphony, presents the violinist and ensemble in a way that interweaves the fiddle, as does the score, into the orchestral tapestry.
Those who find O’Connor’s predominantly straightforward style too unvarying to hold their attention over the long stretches of a concerto or symphony should still find these works highly ingratiating and O’Connor’s playing satisfying. Warmly recommended.
Symphony no 1 "Americana - Variations on Appalachia Waltz": I. Brass Fanfare: Wide Open Spaces
Symphony no 1 "Americana - Variations on Appalachia Waltz": VI. Theme: Splendid Horizons
Violin Concerto no 6 "Old Brass": I. The Road Is Smooth
Average Customer Review: ( 2 Customer Reviews )
A beautiful treatment of "Americana"January 27, 2015By A. White (Chicago, IL)See All My Reviews"I have much enjoyed Mark O'Connor's music on this disk. He has a lilting tone with his fiddle that takes you where the song/tune/piece places you. Not too simple, has some bends in the road, but stays true to the core of its meaning. I'm glad I bought this."Report Abuse
Truely AmericanaSeptember 19, 2013By Kenneth G. (Grand Rapids, MI)See All My Reviews"I like these works but if you want to experience Mark O'Connor at his best [in my listener's opinion] get his "Fanfare for the Volunteer"[FFTV] Although the Americana Symphony is listenable for me at least it has less melody than the FFTV. Mark O'Connor's notes on each movement help the listeners appreciation of the music. Each movement is a variation on his highly successful piece Appalachia Waltz on CD with Yo Yo Ma and bass player Edgar Meyer. The violin concerto is not Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, or Tchaikovsky. However, it is very enjoyable and listenable with roots in Appalachia. If your going to have 2 CDs of Mark O'Connor this is a very good 2nd CD"Report Abuse