The songs that opened Mark O’Connor’s An Appalachian Christmas concert last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts were all dutiful, decorative sound ornaments for the season. A spry Jingle Bells, a stately Beautiful Star of Bethlehem and a swing-savvy Winter Wonderland were all suitably festive. Yet for an artist of O’Connor’s vast stylistic reach, they sounded a touch safe.
Then, four tunes in, the Grammy winning violinist, composer and educator turned to a contemporary piece penned by Kentucky favorite son Steve Wariner called Now It Belongs To You. After a typically deft and virtuosic turn on the strings, O’Connor dropped nearly all of the country accents that pervaded the work to let a three member violin team – himself, Kate Lee and wife Maggie O’Connor – transform the music into shimmering chamber chatter that eventually possessed Pachelbel-like brightness.
The true charm of An Appalchian Christmas, as it turned out, far exceeded the program’s obvious holiday intent. It gathered a handful of styles – bluegrass, country, classical, swing and jazz – that O’Connor has employed more sparingly and specifically in past Lexington performances. Last night, you pretty much got everything, and what a feast it all became.
Carol of the Bells, for instance, again used the violin trio to play off of the chime-like playing of banjoist Cia Cherryholmes and mandolinist Forrest O’Connor (the headliner’s son) for a sound that nicely approximated the genre-bending progressive grass music father O’Connor and his contemporaries explored during the ‘80s. Blue Christmas utilized the hushed vocal appeal of Lee, who regularly recalled the singing of Alison Krauss. Then, at the start of the show’s second set, Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor performed a duet mash-up of the former’s classical/bluegrass hybrid favorite Appalachian Waltz and Silent Night that was rich in improvisational depth, technical command and wonderfully intuitive interaction.
At what was arguably the performance’s high point, the band took on Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas staple Linus and Lucy, pumping it full of bluegrass gusto and jazzy expression while keeping the tune’s very child-like wonder intact as fiddles – er, violins – appropriated the melody lines Guaraldi designed for piano. A jovial, but way too brief bass solo by Michael Rinne enhanced the fun even more.
In summing up the second set, O’Connor and band reversed the flow established earlier in the program by the letting the patient beauty of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring shed its classical frame to fully embrace the festive Americana/Appalachian spirit that drove – but by no means commandeered – this beautifully inventive holiday celebration.