MARK O’CONNOR: Americana Symphony “Variations on Appalachia Waltz;” Concerto No. 6 “Old Brass” – Mark O’Connor, violin/ Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/ Marin Alsop, conductor/ Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston/ Joel Smirnoff, conductor – Shore Fire Media, 67:39 ****:
For those out there unfamiliar with the name, Mark O’Connor’s rise to the music scene came handsomely first as a contest winning prodigy on the fiddle, mandolin and guitar.Others may remember the name from O’Connor’s first Sony Classical album more than a decade ago entitled “Appalachia Waltz,” that set a new standard for an American music idiom. Accomplished at a young age, one Nashville veteran said O’Connor would be a good reason for reincarnation, while celebrated conductor Zubin Mehta called him “one of the most important talents of American music history.”
So, what do we have here from O’Connor in 2009? His newest album entitled “American Symphony” combines the three poles of music that are dearest to the violinist-composer’s heart – classical, folk and jazz. To this end, O’Connor remarked in a recent interview “to write American music, you have to be a player or perhaps a musicologist. A person has to be sensitive not only to the broad outlines of our [American] music, but to the details of the styles that separate it such rich ways.” Under these musical influences, “Americana Symphony” has come to be identified as “New American classical music,” and has respect for traditions as what Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural style has for its surroundings. The two compositions here, including a violin concerto O’Connor wrote in 2003, are visions to an entirely American school of string playing. With close to 70 minutes, O’Connor and his fellow American musicians bring about a microcosm of new musical imageries and structures, setting on stage a landscape that is known to us today as “Americana.” Appropriately, O’Connor joins forces with those who share firmly to this heritage, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its director, Marin Alsop.
“Americana Symphony” traces the American East to the West through a combination of historical and natural inspirations. The opening movement, “Brass Fanfare: Wilde Open Spaces,” sets up the themes of the piece, just as Aaron Copland had done with his “Appalachian Spring.” O’Connor incorporates the key phrases through expansive uses of the brass and percussion in order to define the open landscapes of America. The next movement, “New World Fanciful Dance” celebrates the Appalachian communities that O’Connor calls “the original meeting pot of America.” Here, O’Connor uses a jig from the woodwinds to portray this musically – full of energy and liveliness. The two middle movements, “Different Paths Towards Home” and “Open Plains Hoedown,” feature a fugue and a dance, respectively. It starts from the Great Smokey Mountains, and through a variety of different rhythms incorporated in the hoedown, eventually pushes the music to the grand horizons of the American West. The fifth movement, “Soaring Eagle, Setting Sun” is perhaps the most picturesque of the movements, as O’Connor imagines the westward travelers facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle with the Rocky Mountains. This is represented by a slow opening, which gradually sets the path to the symphony’s final movement “Splendid Horizons.” Not only is this work a sweeping account of the great landscapes of America, but like the compositions of Dvořák and Copland before him, “Americana Symphony” is O’Connor’s celebration of the spirit, wonder, renewed optimism and hope for a brighter future. “Americana Symphony” will be a pride to Americans, just as “Finlandia” has done for Sibelius more than a century ago.
Concerto No. 6 for Violin, nicknamed “Old Brass” is inspired by O’Connor’s visit to a South Carolina plantation designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The hexagonal shape of the building inspired the musically six-note patterns interspersed through weaving phrases. The plantation’s focus on a nearby “black water” lake inspired those murky and mysterious Southern harmonies, accentuated by the work’s second movement “Spanish Moss, Black Water.” But what inspires listeners with this Concerto from those before from O’Connor’s pen is the composer’s ability to present music with vivid contrast without ever making the music out-of-place. Music shifts naturally between dark and light, tension and release, much like the passage of day from one to the next.
So from here, what’s next? A seventh concerto or an “Americana” tone-poem, perhaps? Mark O’Connor has certainly sketched a new outline for American classical music that offers great potential. I am confident that this album will hardly be an end, but as an impressive journey for many more to come. Stay tuned.
— Patrick P.L. Lam