Mark O’Connor scoffed when an associate told him she wanted to enter him in a prestigious contest that provides lucrative grants to classical composers. “Don’t bother,” he told her. “I wouldn’t have a chance.”
He could give her several reasons why: He considers himself a fiddler, not a violinist; he’s widely perceived as a country musician; he’s successful and financially secure, unlike many talented, up-and-coming composers devoted to the classical form; and, at the time, he’d only written one concerto. Besides, “I’m not in that clique,” he remembers thinking. “I know enough about what I’m doing to realize I’m completely new to the classical world, and I had already found success in another genre. I thought that would be less appealing. I thought they would choose a struggling composer with a lot of talent who can’t get a break, opposed to a guy winning country music awards.”
He was wrong. Meet the Composer, the largest commissioning organization for modern American classical composers, awarded three $25,000 grants in 1993. Two went to creators of piano concertos. The other went to O’Connor. It was awarded on the merits of his Fiddle Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. “I could not believe it,” O’Connor says, an emphatic sense of surprise still present in his voice.
O’Connor used the grant to take time off from his concert and studio schedule to work on another orchestral piece. He’ll perform his Fiddle Concerto No. 2 for the first time Saturday night with the Nashville Symphony. Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn and bassist Edgar Meyer will also premiere new pieces, making it the first time an entire Nashville Symphony concert has been devoted solely to original works by Tennessee composers.
“I think it’s an event that’s long overdue, considering the writing talent in this city,” O’Connor says. “It’s great to use European music, and to continue that great tradition, but it’s also important to extend that tradition and to perform and nurture new works.” National Public Radio will record the concert for a Memorial Day broadcast of Performance Today; it will be the first time a Nashville Symphony concert has been broadcast nationally on the public radio network.
Officially, Saturday’s performance will be the fiddle concerto’s co-premiere. The piece will also be unveiled by the New Mexico Symphony in Albuquerque and by the esteemed Concordia Orchestra, which will feature the work as part of its concert series at New York’s Lincoln Center. “They’re known for almost exclusively doing modern compositions,” O’Connor reports of the latter group. “It’s an elitist type of orchestra with really rabid fans.”
For O’Connor, these honors are part of a head-spinning three years during which he’s received an astounding amount of recognition and acceptance from the American classical music community. His first concerto has been performed more than 40 times, a nearly unheard-of feat for a work by a new American composer in the 1990s. The Boston Pops used it to follow a Bartók concerto, and the Colorado Symphony programmed it with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. The San Antonio Symphony featured the piece in an evening of classical music, and the St. Louis Symphony will perform it in an upcoming classical series concert. As if that weren’t enough, orchestras in Kansas City and Salt Lake City have devoted whole concerts to O’Connor’s music. And, on June 22, the Seattle Symphony will follow suit, giving over an entire evening to O’Connor, who also happens to be a native son. “I grew up going to concerts at Seattle Symphony Hall,” he says. “I’ve never performed there, not until this opportunity came up.”
O’Connor couldn’t have foreseen his success. When he wrote his first concerto, he did so without any guarantee of it being performed by an orchestra. “It was a project I wanted to do for myself,” he recalls. “I really didn’t expect it to ever be heard, because of the lack of involvement of a fiddler and an orchestra. I thought it could work musically, but I wasn’t sure it would work practically. When it saw the light of the day, it was as much of a surprise to me as to anyone else. So that was a magnum leap in my musical career.”
Indeed, the piece was recently performed in Santa Cruz, Calif., as part of the Cabrillo Festival, one of the most notable and longest-running orchestra festivals in America. The event is known for its emphasis on modern classical music; both Aaron Copland and John Cage have served as music directors. “If someone said to me, ‘You’re the CMA Musician of the Year, who is your best audience?,’ ” O’Connor states, “I’d have to say, right now, that it is the orchestra audience.”
For O’Connor, though, it’s more important to break down the walls between musical categories and to point out their commonalities rather than their differences. “I feel like I’m on this path for a reason,” he says. “In turning heads in both country music and classical music, I’m helping people to see where these two genres communicate. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been done very much. Gershwin fused jazz and classical themes, and Copland drew on American folk themes and Southwestern themes. I think it’s interesting that those pieces are the ones to have lived on to become some of the greatest musical literature of this country. There’s definitely a precedent for what I’m doing. It strikes me as odd that fiddling and classical violin have been paralleled for so long but have never crossed over.”
O’Connor also hopes his work will help give old-time fiddle tunes and traditional country music their due as part of the great wealth of American folk music. “Country music has such historical significance in our country, but it also has this commercial moniker,” he explains. “When you place commercial music against serious music, the serious-music people are going to say that commercialism is a compromise. But there’s a huge part of country music that needs to be given credit for how it shaped our country. So there’s a funny dualism there. I think it’s part of my responsibility to help describe this scenario to people. They might have heard some commercial country artists that they don’t like so much. But if they heard the significant folk artists working in country music, if they heard the music created by Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and the music of my mentor, the great Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, maybe they would see how great some of this music is. Those guys aren’t studied as much as they should be.”
This is one of the reasons O’Connor devotes a segment of his busy schedule to education. He became the first non-classically trained musician to join the faculty of Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music when he was named an adjunct associate professor in the fall of 1994. Along those lines, he says one of his greatest honors was an invitation to perform with the student orchestra of the University of Southern California at the National String Convention.
“We played for teachers from all over the country,” O’Connor says. “I would really love to see this music make an impact on the teaching of string music. Four years ago, if a violin student wanted to learn a fiddle tune, he would get ‘Orange Blossom Special’ and that’s all. Now another choice is ‘Ashoman Farewell’ [popularized during the PBS series The Civil War and performed as a duet between O’Connor and Pinchas Zuckerman on O’Connor’s 1994 album, Heroes]. It would be great to have more choices and more literature out there.”
O’Connor will certainly do his part. “I’ve been surprised by so much of what has happened to me,” he says. “I want to keep taking steps and see how far it will go.”
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