in performance: mark o’connor

mark o'connor

Even in a performance setting that is more like a classroom than a concert stage, Mark O’ Connor is nothing if not resourceful.

When technical problems briefly interrupted last night’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre, where O’Connor was the featured guest, host Michael Johnathon asked the Grammy winning fiddler if he had a two minute jig he could play to fill the recovery time. With typical efficiency, O’Connor and piano accompanist Melissa Tong dispatched an impromptu but eloquently merry Rippling Water Jig. It clocked in, by my watch, at about 95 seconds. Filling dead air time never sounded so grand.

O’Connor is one of the rare, remarkable artists that Lexington is gifted to hear in performance every year or so. But never is the musical setting the same. Just in past WoodSongs appearances alone, he has performed with his swing jazz trio and his Americana-based chamber group, the Appalachia Waltz Trio. Last night, he had Tong as his lone touring companion but enlisted a troop of nine student fiddlers from Lexington’s Carwile String Studio (along with proprietors Dan and Amy Carwile). The purpose was to showcase the instructional violin method O’Connor has developed utilizing a repertoire of American folk-based standards as opposed to familiar European classical works.

The first half of the program was devoted exclusively to duet performances with Tong on works from O’Connor’s new American Classics album. Performances of Rubber Dolly Rag and Old Folks at Home were deceptively accessible. They maintained a light but formal parlor-like feel with O’Connor’s clean, stately tone fully in charge. But when he slipped in a delicacy like Stephane Grappelli’s Daphne, you saw discreet levels of technique emerge. Ditto for Simple Gifts, where O’Connor’s tone briefly tightened into thicker, accordion-like runs.

The second half of the program enlisted the Carwile students for compositions that sported lovely ensemble passages accented by subtle but luminous solo work from O’Connor. Especially appealing were arrangements of Amazing Grace and Appalachia Waltz that put the Americana influences that have long been abundant in O’Connor’s playing (inspirations, in fact, that thrive further within his violin method) on brilliant display.

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