Since starting the job last spring, Mark O'Connor has played two formal gigs with the CSO, trained local students and teachers in his O'Connor Method of string playing, dropped in for concerts at breweries and fundraisers, embarked on a frenzied 45-day holiday tour with the Grammy-winning O'Connor Band, organized his first international string camp in Charlotte, reawakened an interest in guitar playing that had lain dormant for 20 years and led his bluegrass band onstage for two sold-out Charlotte concerts with the Zac Brown Band in October. That went so well that Brown has agreed to produce the band's next album and use them as the opening act on his 2018 summer tour.
Meanwhile, the CSO will play O'Connor's "Americana Symphony" Feb. 2-3 in an all-U.S. program with George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and both sets of Aaron Copland's "Old American Songs," done by the Charlotte Symphony Chorus. For the first time in at least four decades, the CSO will anchor one of its classical concerts with a 35-minute work by a living American.
Hmmm ... maybe this guy should spend less time in bed.
"I've always felt the great story of America is inclusiveness, how it took people from all over the world to create our culture. You hear that in fiddle music."
"It's amazing what you can do when you take back those extra hours of sleep," says O'Connor. "This week, I wrote three vocal songs, which I never did before. My musical life keeps blossoming."
Symphony 'struggled a bit'
The 56-year-old chameleon made his name in the late '70s and '80s, playing guitar and violin with the David Grisman Quintet, Dixie Dregs and Strength in Numbers while appearing on countless country, jazz and bluegrass albums. He leaped into the classical world with a Fiddle Concerto in 1992 and has run his musical train on parallel tracks for 25 years.
He and wife Maggie, an accomplished fiddler who plays and sings in the O'Connor Band, moved to Charlotte in spring 2016. His Facebook post suggesting a CSO partnership drew a positive response from the orchestra. It had never employed an artist-in-residence, but new president/CEO Mary Deissler had used them elsewhere. She and music director Christopher Warren-Green, a British-born conductor who appreciates American composers, saw a double boon: O'Connor could draw audiences who skipped classical concerts and show classically trained players new ways to think about musicianship.
"The first time we played one of Mark's pieces, we struggled a bit," says Warren-Green, thinking back to the Altsounds concert with the O'Connor Band last May. "The people in his band are virtuosos, and you could see our musicians watching them carefully. Now all our fiddlers get it."
It's a powerful statement when kids play these out in the world. It's like we're creating an army of string players spreading the word.
Besides O'Connor's "Johnny Appleseed Suite," that concert included the brass fanfare from "Americana Symphony," a long and well-disguised set of variations on O'Connor's "Appalachia Waltz." Warren-Green decided to perform the whole symphony this winter to show O'Connor isn't just a fiddler who spotlights his own virtuosity.