New Classical Tracks - A Fiddler's Christmas

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
December 13, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — Fiddler Mark O'Connor believes his job is to stretch the boundaries of conventional music styles. That's why this talented Texas fiddler, jazz artist and bluegrass musician is also a classical composer. He loves taking a musical tradition and turning it into something new, and that's precisely what he's done on his new holiday release, "An Appalachian Christmas." "This album," he explains, "not only brings together my concept of an Appalachian Christmas and more generally an Americana Christmas, it also encapsulates 25 years of my music making, and it brings together this journey that I've been on."

"The strong theme of this album is Christmas and music. Family themes," O'Connor says. "Singing about an old hunting dog, or singing about passing a fiddle down through generations. These strong Appalachian themes that have been around for hundreds of years — saying goodbye to a loved one, and hoping the angels will take care of that person. These are things that families deal with during the holiday season. Remembering loved ones, remembering great times, and celebrating good times to come." For O'Connor many of those good times relate to Christmas. That's because he often received all the music he'd been hoping for throughout the year as Christmas gifts. So his family Christmas was filled with different types of music. "Our Christmastime became a musical household with family and friends coming to visit and play with Mark O'Connor, the little fiddle champion," he recalls. "And so we would play carols, fiddle tunes and this mixture of music was something I wanted to bring out in my Christmas album. A true Americana Christmas that brought people together."

On "An Appalachian Christmas," O'Connor brings together a broad range of musicians, some of whom may surprise you, like the opera star who joins him on "Away in a Manger." "Renee Fleming was really interested in my Appalachia Waltz music and she thought about doing her own Appalachia-themed album. These Christmas songs I did with her are a part of those conversations and are the result of them. When I'm looking at an orchestra I think about it through the prism of an Americana orchestral or turning an entire string section into a mountain string section, so that's what I did for 'Away in a manager,' with Renee."

Several superstar guitarists join O'Connor on this release ranging from classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, to pop star James Taylor. Nashville guitarists Brent Mason and Mark Casstevens team up with O'Connor on several pieces including 'The Cherry Tree Carol,' which brings out the best of Mark O'Connor's bluegrass roots.

Alison Krauss's crystalline voice is the highlight of Stephen Foster's 'Slumber my darling,' arranged here by bassist Edgar Meyer.

There are two pieces on this recording which feature Mark O'Connor playing all the instruments: 'What Child Is This" and "Sleigh Ride," which offers a chance to hear what Mark O'Connor can do with an electric guitar.

As you listen to the song, "One Winter Night," you might want to glance at the cover of this new CD, because Mark O'Connor had that picture in his mind when he wrote it. "I really thought about that piece when I helped design the cover. It is a picture of a little Appalachian town at dusk. There's a bluish tint to the picture with a snow-covered valley."

Mark O'Connor lives in midtown New York City, and he has a second country home on the river in Pennsylvania across from the Appalachian mountain range. That's where he plans to spend Christmas this year, making music with family and friends. And, when they need a break, like you and me, they'll remember great times, and think about those yet to come while they listen to "An Appalachian Christmas."

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