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Thursday, November 10,2011

Born in the U.S.A.

Violinist Mark O’Connor brings American heritage to the forefront

By Steve Weishampel
Courtesy of Shorefire Media

Mark O’Connor is a rebel. At a time when hardly a band in existence can define its music without two or three hyphens — electro-trip-neo-soul, psychedelic alt-folk-country, or any other mashup of adjectives — O’Connor just doesn’t see it.

“I categorize it all as American music,” the world-renowned violinist says. “I’m basically saying that American music is a genre and there’s a lot of subgenres.”

O’Connor’s own career demonstrates how flexible those subgenres are and how interrelated they can be. A former teen prodigy with a long list of collaborations, O’Connor strummed alongside legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma, briefly joined Southern rockers The Dixie Dregs, and played with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

To promote his newest project, a collection called Appalachian Christmas that O’Connor half-jokingly says is in “the subgenre of American Christmas,” O’Connor will travel to Boulder to appear on the live radio program eTown at 7:00 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Boulder Theater.

O’Connor says he has no problem switching from subgenre to subgenre; he credits his instrument for allowing so much flexibility.

“Especially with the violin, there’s a real common language that the violin can operate in,” O’Connor says. He’s played the violin for years, along with guitar and mandolin. “With blues and hoedown and ragtime as a foundational starting point for the language, if you know those things, you can have access to most any other American musical form.”

His career’s taken him around the country; O’Connor was born in Seattle, lived for years in the South and now resides in New York City. In those travels, he says, he’s learned the importance of the American musical tradition, citing George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein as key figures in American classical music.

O’Connor says he’s concerned that for the average person, “classical music” calls to mind European tradition, not American.

“That, I see as a real challenge to be able to overcome,” he says. “We’re gonna need a lot more people involved, more composers, more people taking it seriously, more people writing about it. We just need more energy.”

It’s not by accident that European classical music dominates the conversation, O’Connor says.

“I believe it has largely to do with racism and classism,” he says. “A lot of our American musical language was developed by people in the minority populations. And there were people in the uppity social societies that didn’t want anything to do with it for a couple centuries.”

Jazz and blues, O’Connor says, developed among a population — Southern African-Americans — that didn’t get a lot of representation in and respect from the established musical community. So Americans continued looking to Europe for their classical models.

"When Gershwin came out with Porgy and Bess it was difficult for the classical music establishment to think that was anything they would be interested in,” he says. “And it’s truly a masterpiece. That’s the degree to how racism and classism has affected a lot of people’s ability to think even in the arts.”

Today, O’Connor hopes an increased focus on the American tradition can help correct these wrongs.

“I think we can make cultural corrections this generation,” he says. “I think we can do a lot to overcome a lot of the problems in the past.”

O’Connor puts that idea into practice through a heavy emphasis on education. In the last few years he’s developed the O’Connor Method, an educational series for young violinists that turns to American music for its material, not European classics.

“Most of the materials used in the current methodology for strings are from the Baroque period, 250, 300 years old,” he says. “Some of that stuff is good, maybe a lot is good, but it has very little to do with music in America in the 21st century.”

That wasn’t working for O’Connor.

“Why can’t I use American music, which is much more relevant? Then if you need to make a departure from our traditional music to play Brahms or to be in a hip hop group or whatever direction the musician wants to go, why not make the departure from our tradition?”

It’s not just about American versus European music, O’Connor says. Teaching from American tradition helps student musicians learn flexibility and improvisation at an earlier age.

“The American music system is such a creative system because it puts the impetus on the individual to express themselves rather than an overly rigid formal training,” he says. When I thought about the American system and the violin, I thought, ‘This can’t wait until high school or college, that’s too late.’ This has to take place when those kids are first experiencing music.”

To spread his method and help music teachers in their profession, O’Connor will host a teaching training course while he’s in Boulder. The evening after his eTown appearance, he’ll appear at the Boulder Piano Gallery (3111 Walnut St.) for a 90-minute session to instruct teachers on the O’Connor Method, sponsored by the Parlando School for the Arts. For more information on the teacher training session, contact Liz Dinwiddie at liz.dinwiddie@gmail.com.

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