When Symphony NH kicks off its 95th season this weekend, one of the classical world’s most prolific violinists and composers will be in its spotlight.
Multiple Grammy Award winner Mark O’Connor, whose work is inspired by the American landscape and its immigrants, will bring that rich sense of musical history to the organization’s season opener with two of his well-known feature compositions —“Strings and Threads Suite For Two Violins” and “Fiddle Concerto For Orchestra.”
Violinist Maggie O’Connor (who also is O’Connor’s partner in marriage), will join him on stage with Symphony NH, to be led by guest conductor Scott Parkman, who is one of a handful of finalists in Symphony NH’s search for a new music director. The concerts will be Saturday at 8 p.m. at Keefe Center for the Arts, 117 Elm St., Nashua, and Sunday at 3 p.m. at Concord City Auditorium, 2 Prince St., Concord.
As a fusion artist, O’Connor melds his classical works with many different styles of Americana, including bluegrass, ragtime, jazz and African American spirituals. He’s also created a new style of string playing called, fittingly, the O’Connor Method. Over his lengthy career, the versatile musician has collaborated with wide-ranging experts in their fields — opera singer Renée Fleming, cellist extraordinaire Yo-Yo Ma and classical bassist Edgar Meyer.
Currently he helms a bluegrass group called the Mark O’Connor Band — a close-knit family affair that includes his wife, son and daughter-in-law. (He’s won three Grammys and with the band collected one more.)
O’Connor spoke with NHWeekend about his family tree and how early American history has shaped his music.
Besides the “Strings & Threads Suite” and the fiddle concerto, what else will you play with Symphony NH?
“Appalachia Waltz,” which is probably my most well-known piece. “Appalachia Waltz” is my only million seller. I first recorded that with the famous cellist Yo Yo Ma.
What was it like working with Yo-Yo Ma?
It was tremendous. It was the experience of a lifetime because he’s so great and so accomplished and so famous … (There was) a lot of energy with those projects.
When you first started in music, were you interested in other styles aside from classical?
As a child I took lessons in a variety of different music genres, including classical, folk music, American music, jazz and world music. I spin all of these kinds of influences into my compositions. And what comes out is not straight-ahead, classical music. It’s not exactly Brahms or Tchaikovsky, but it’s my own style. I call it “American classical.”
When you’re working on an original piece, what gives you inspiration?
American musical history. There are certain styles of American music that go way back ... that create a foundation for the music that inspires me. Those sounds would include, say, the hoedown and blues and ragtime and African American spirituals. Those four would be foundational styles of American music that literally go back hundreds of years. That’s a substantial amount of time. America acted as a depository for musical culture. The violin goes back to the beginning of these styles of music and was central to the creation of these styles of music instrumentally.
I love the cultural diversity of American music. The “Strings & Threads Suite” itself, the whole piece, is kind of like my family tree, where music styles cross-pollinate with each other to create a new thing.
A third (inspiration is)… beautiful habitats, natural habitats. Our landscapes and our rivers and lakes and mountains and valleys are a constant source of inspiration. I always think about the interface of music and people as I’m composing.
Are there certain regions of America that you draw from?
I would say the South, and certainly the East Coast. New York has quite a musical history. I would also include the Deep South and even all the way over to Texas, especially from the Hispanic styles coming through Texas.
One of my principal teachers was a Texas musician, and he was greatly influenced by the culture there. And one of my other teachers was from France, and he was inspired hugely by American music. Then it rebounds back over to Europe starting with jazz, and even through rock ’n’ roll. You got Elvis and Little Richard inspiring the Beatles, so I love that travelogue that American music has been a part of.
Did certain styles of music develop in isolated corners of the United States?
Bluegrass comes out of the area where I live, North Carolina ..., Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky. Ragtime came out of the South, but it ended up in New York City and then in New Orleans, and then it went into jazz and so forth. So the music kept growing. I find that very interesting, how it sparks up in certain small places. Musicians were curious about each other, no matter where they were, from all parts of the world. That was a great way to spread the joy of these new music styles.
One of the great figures in American history, who I write about in The O’Connor Method, is Davy Crockett, the king of the wild frontier. He took his fiddle all the way to the Alamo; he took his musket and his fiddle and in the process became one of the great American heroes fighting in three different wars ... to lift people’s spirits up through music.
Does travel and the sound of the train factor into your music as well?
The sound of the train has influenced American music profoundly, with a lonesome whistle blow of the train and the sound of the wheels on the tracks creating a rhythm and an energy. A lot of (music) is really based on that idea of sound and also the idea of displacement — coming and going, and seeing if there’s a better life down the road. That’s really a unique characteristic of American people: “Let’s go here now” or ‘let’s go west,” “let’s find something,” “let’s find gold in those hills.”
What about your own family roots?
I partially based my “Strings and Threads Suite” on my own family tree. My mother’s side were Dutch, and they are the ones that ended up in New York. My ancestors come from Ireland. Some of the O’Connors in the 1840s, when they came over during the potato famine, ended up in St. Paul, Minn., then they moved to Nebraska, then they migrated to Montana and Wyoming and some of them migrated all the way out to Seattle. So you have a microcosm of what America is about: finding the rainbow.
So my ... “Threads Suite” is kind of built on a cross-pollination of my two family trees. The Fiddle Concerto is the most-performed violin concerto written in the last 60 years, which is amazing.
Can you explain why that’s a milestone accomplishment?
There’s not a lot of new music in the classical realm that is becoming tradition. You hear Mozart and Beethoven and the same composers. You’d get all the way up through Rachmaninoff, you know, and Bartok, maybe Copeland, up through the 1940s basically. Ever since World War II, it’s been a lot tougher for a classical music piece to catch on, or become performed regularly. I would say maybe Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” is often performed, and that was the 1950s.
To compose the “Fiddle Concerto” and have it performed so many times represents the most performances of any composed concerta for violin, which is very exciting.
Are you working on any new pieces now?
Yeah, I’m always working on music. One of the things that I’ve done this year that I think surprised a lot of people, and I surprised myself, is that I got back into my guitar again, which I’m playing a little bit more of in my concerts.
I had put the guitar down 20 years ago. I was trying to cut down on overuse of my arm.