In some circles Mark O’Connor is a legend in his own time. While still a teenager he won wide acclaim as one of the best bluegrass fiddlers of our age. Beyond many albums of bluegrass and folk music, he has also made critically and commercially successful crossover recordings with the likes of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and double bassist Edgar Meyer. His Appalachia Waltz is inevitable in evoking a nostalgia for America past in TV soundtracks (notably Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War).

Mark O’Connor © Jim McGuire
Mark O’Connor
© Jim McGuire

In middle age, O’Connor as reinvented himself as a pedagogue and evangelist for an “American style” of string playing based on bluegrass, jazz, “old time”, and blues. He has formalized a teaching approach – a historical performance practice – that he himself likely learned as a young man by listening to and playing with the greats of folk music and jazz, such as Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Benny Thomasson and French great Stéphane Grappelli. He has also composed and recorded a body of new works that use those American styles in an attempt to reach a more “classical” audience. As part of its Performing Arts Series, the Cleveland Museum of Art presented the O’Connor String Quartet (O’Connor and Kelly Hall-Tompkins, violins; Gillian Gallagher, viola; Patrice Jackson, cello) in a program of O’Connor’s classical works for string quartet. While in Cleveland, O’Connor gave a number of masterclasses in this American vernacular style and improvisation to string students at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

By way of introducing the members of the quartet and introducing the styles that would be used in the two major compositions on the program, String Quartet no. 2 “Bluegrass” and String Quartet no. 3 “Old Time”, O’Connor played a series of duos with his other three players. With cellist Patrice Jackson, he played an example of a hoedown, a style based in Native American music and thought to be at least 400 years old. This version was originally written for Yo-Yo Ma, and the cello part is equally matched to the violin. With violist Gillian Gallagher, O’Connor next played a jig of his own composing, based on the Irish style, but much more harmonically adventurous. Violinist Kelly Hall joined O’Connor for an excerpt from O’Connor’s third concerto for two violins, in a blues/ragtime style. The work was a complex dialogue between the two violins, endlessly overlapping each other and improvised cadenzas that were a kind of “play-off” between the two. Because of their brevity, these three short pieces were not only an excellent introduction to the styles that would reappear in the major string quartets to follow, but were the most effective works on the program.

I confess to having major reservations about O’Connor’s two quartets performed here. These are major works of serious intent, and the writing is undoubtedly virtuosic. The performances were undeniably brilliant. However, after a while they all began to sound alike – at least to me. The musical material could not sustain the length of the movements; editing by half would have made them exponentially more effective. The textures were consistently complex; rarely were there passages of just one or two of the players. There was little sense of repose or lyricism, which became wearing on the ears. This was especially the case in the second quartet, “Bluegrass”.

By observation, others in the audience must have felt the same way; the number of occupied seats in Gartner Auditorium was considerably fewer after intermission. This was a shame, because the works on the second half were, in fact, more interesting. O’Connor opened with a free solo improvisation of the sort that he had been teaching earlier in the day to the music students. About seven minutes in length, he displayed a number of styles and special techniques in a set of variations. He did not limit himself to bowing and plucking, but also tapped on various parts of his violin to create complex rhythmic patterns.

The third quartet, “Old Time”, was composed several years later than the second, and was somewhat briefer, although judicious editing would still help the overall effect. The second movement, with its haunting melody, was a series of interrelated variations. This movement was the high point of the concert, with melodic interest, observable form and variety of musical textures. The last movement, a “hoedown”, was an effective dialogue among these virtuoso players.

As an encore the group played O’Connor’s most famous composition, the Appalachia Waltz. It is magical in its simplicity.

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