Among the core themes of holiday songs – and, indeed, to Christmastime, in general – are family and home.
Mark O’Connor has expanded on that idea. Since the heralded violinist has been on the road this time every year since his Americana-flavored An Appalachian Christmas album was released in 2011, he has chosen to take his family with him as he creates his sounds of the season. Of course, the fact that wife Maggie (also on violin) and son Forrest (on mandolin) are both versed musicians doesn’t hurt.
“It’s hard to describe, but I think there is a natural element to a project like this,” said O’Connor, who brings his An Appalachian Christmas program to the Singletary Center for the Arts on Friday. “Some families might play together. But my wife and I just have this chemistry with the violins. When we play together, we know we really like it and we can see our audiences really like it. To be able to extend that duo chemistry with the violins to a larger group and then have everybody just fall into that closeness of sound and style… it’s really just a catalyst for good music making.”
“Playing with my son and my wife offers a whole new dimension that I have never really imagined before. I mean, how can you plan that? It’s not like a career development path. It just happened. It was just right there. We just put it onstage like any good musician would do with any good idea.”
Bred on bluegrass, but with a far-reaching vocabulary that reaches into classical, jazz, country, fusion and swing, O’Connor has been championed equally as an instrumentalist, composer and, thanks to a teaching method that bears his name, educator. An Appalachian Christmas, however, picks up on what was perhaps his most visible career during the ‘80s and ‘90s – that of a sideman on scores of predominantly country music recordings.
“I’ve played with a lot of singers as a sideman. But to kind of switch it around and have the focal point of An Appalachian Christmas be the fiddle and then have the songs and the album’s incredible guest singers (Renee Fleming, Jane Monheit, James Taylor, Alison Krauss and Russell Springs favorite son Steve Wariner) to combine for a sequence of beautiful songs that support that central element is something I also feel very lucky to be part of.
“You get this real feeling that the American violin is central to this project. The style of music, in a real general sense, has bluegrass instrumentation stretching to include the sounds of classical, the sounds of swing, the sounds of ethereal and New Age, the sounds of Appalachia. Then to make that a cohesive whole has really been a rewarding experience, something that brings generations of audiences together at a really special time of the year in American life.”
But O’Connor has a dual purpose for his Lexington visit. He will be in town a day early to present a workshop on the O’Connor Method, an instructional regimen that employs American music as a primary source and reference for teaching.
“It will be a community of music learning. We want kids to learn American music. It’s powerful and it’s inspirational. We want kids to play instruments again, you know? Maybe spend less time on video games and more on playing actual instruments. People like us are the ones to deliver that message. We can sing great, we can look great, but the important thing is we’re playing our instruments. We cherish that.
“We want to make sure that message gets to kids. We want to appeal to kids. We don’t want to just tell them, ‘Do this scale over and over until it’s perfect.’ They’ve already tried that for generations. It works for some but not for the many. We think we have a different and better approach for strings with the O’Connor Method where we are using American music and its cultural diversity. It incorporates music from all eras, all these different styles that are so inspirational. And creativity – creativity and improvisation. We’re definitely doubling down on string orchestra, but we’re not leaving out bluegrass bands or jazz ensembles or rock. We want strings to be in every part of music culture.”
Mark O’Connor: An Appalachian Christmas performs at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Tickets: $15-$32. Call 859-257-4929 or go to finearts.uky.edu/singletary-center.
O’Connor and his band will present a workshop on the O’Connor Method at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 10 at the School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCAPA), 400 Lafayette Parkway. Tuition is $60, registration fee is $35. For more information, go to www.oconnormethod.com.