New Classical Tracks: Fiddler blends bluegrass with classical

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
June 30, 2009

St. Paul, Minn. — It's hard to put the past behind you, and sometimes you don't have to. On his new recording of string quartets, fiddler Mark O'Connor is reviving his past.

As a young violin student, O'Connor studied classical music. As a teenager, he became more interested in folk and jazz, and later worked as a Nashville session musician playing bluegrass and jazz for several years.

About 25 years ago, O'Connor came full circle when he started composing and performing classical music with his own Americana flair. On his latest release, O'Connor accents his String Quartets No. 2 & 3 with elements of bluegrass and old-time music.

It's been 400 years since Henry Hudson sailed up the Hudson River. Last year the Hudson Commission asked O'Connor to write a quartet to celebrate that anniversary and the early days of the first European settlements.

O'Connor was asked to express the natural habitat and beauty of the Hudson Valley, using musical elements coming from the history of the area. The first thing that came to mind was the old-time fiddling that dominated the Catskill Mountain region in the early 1800s.

In the String Quartet No. 3, subtitled "Old-Time," O'Connor invents musical phrases that are modeled on that tradition. Then he twists these phrases using tight harmonies, and prickly, percussive rhythms in the first movement.

The second movement is a lilting waltz enhanced by charming grace notes and subtle pizzicato rhythms.

O'Connor hand-picked top talent to join him on this recording, including violinist Ida Kavafian, violist Paul Neubauer, and cellist Matt Haimovitz. Their technical expertise and emotional maturity captures the beauty of this soulful movement.

The third movement feels like a full-blown hoe-down. Hearing this quartet shift moods so eloquently is a real treat.

The String Quartet No. 2, "Bluegrass," is so infectious, you'll want to hit the replay button again and again to appreciate its nuances. Just when you think it's going in a straight-ahead classical vein, O'Connor switches gears, throwing in his own hot bluegrass licks.

The thick textures between the four instruments in the first movement can make your head spin until one by one, they pull out the melodic phrase with sweeping strokes.

Rich slides and perpetual motion rhythms encompass the second movement. This movement is a counterpoint puzzle that revolves around slippery fiddle licks. At first the harmonies seem to clash -- yet they're so intricate that they become mesmerizing.

The third movement is an elegant, restful ballad. This is where we get a chance to hear the individual virtuosity of the performers, as each improvises around the tranquil melodic line.

When Mark O'Connor chose to build a quartet with high-caliber musicians like Ida Kavafian, Paul Neubauer and Matt Haimovitz, he was ensuring he would have a unified ensemble that could pull off his special blend of hybrid Americana heard on this new release.

This recording features two of six string quartets which are part of a cycle O'Connor will be writing over the next few years. Each one will reflect a specific tradition of American folk music.

After hearing what he can do with old-time and bluegrass traditions, I can hardly wait to hear the Texas swing string quartet.

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