I’ve heard the name “Mark O’Connor” (webpage here) for years, but didn’t really investigate his music until recently. It’s one of the pleasures of covering shows in that it exposes me to artists both new and old that I’ve missed along the way. Mr. O’Connor has such an incredibly versatile repertoire that any show can hold surprises even for those familiar with his music.
The kind of passion Mark elicits was displayed even before the show began when Matthew Debardelaben approached and asked if I was going to cover the show. Upon learning that I was, he began telling me how critical it is to mention the way that Mark is “committed to moving classical composition forward utilizing the distinct American vernacular . . . he is composing classical music with the influences of Appalachia, jazz, ragtime, blues, etc. Classical “purists” have pushed back hard.”
He went on to mention the controversy O’Connor has stirred by questioning the Suzuki method of teaching violin and promoting his own method – which O’Connor repeatedly mentioned during the show. A simple online search turns up numerous articles, charges and counter-charges regarding the issue, but it’s really one for the people in that world and not so much for most of us who will never attempt to master the instrument.
When I realized the show would be based on his “An Appalachian Christmas” album, which is one of his most successful, I was a bit disappointed. I’d hoped to get a broad exposure to his work. I needn’t have worried. He really does bend, blend and mash-up different traditions in a way that is fresh and exciting. Even the most tired Christmas songs were fresh in his hands. One song in particular stood out to me: About two thirds of the way through as I was loving what he was doing, I realized I was listening to “Silent Night.” He deconstructed the song in a beautiful and fresh way.
Obviously, the musicianship was stunning all night. Mr. O’Connor began winning awards, accolades and critical praise as a child prodigy and hasn’t stopped expanding his influence and accomplishment. While the album inspiring the tour featured superstars like James Taylor, Chris Thile and Alison Krauss, the current band includes his son Forrest on vocals and mandolin, Cia Cherry-Holmes on vocals and banjo, flat-picking champion Joe Smart on guitar, Kate Lee on violin and vocals and Michael Rinne on bass. Maggie O’Connor, with whom Mark recently celebrated their first anniversary, joins on violin for a portion of the set.
I was sold enough on the whole thing that I purchased the CD and we’ve really enjoyed it this season. I really didn’t think I ever needed to buy another Christmas CD in my life, but this one is very different. I don’t love every song, but the vast majority are both seasonal and beg additional listens which is hard to do with a Christmas song after so many years. I’ll include a sample below and, hopefully I’ll post another twenty or so photographs to the Inside of Knoxville FB page in the next day or so. Regarding the photographs, I feel a little better about mine after seeing the video below because the videographer has the same issue that frustrated me: the placement of the microphones obscured the performers’ faces worse than any show I remember. Ah well, small quibble.