Two-time Grammy Award winning violinist Mark O'Connor will headline Tacoma's Rialto Theatre on March 30, taking fans on a musical journey that will run the gamut of American string traditions, from old-time mountain music to jazz, Canadian fiddle and clog dancing to classical.
To mark the occasion, we caught up with the New York-based composer to talk about his Northwest roots, his past as a child prodigy and his passion for teaching kids using his O'Connor Violin Method.
TW: You're actually from Seattle originally, right?
O'Connor: Yes, I grew up in Seattle. And, actually, for a couple of months I took some guitar lessons in Tacoma from Dudley Hill (a founder of popular Gypsy jazz band Pearl Django.) He was a wonderful guitarist, and he died (in 2005). It was a great opportunity for me to learn from him. I was 12 years old.
TW: I was just recently watching you at 13 at the Grand Ole Opry on “The Porter Wagoner Show” (see clips on YouTube). What do you remember about those early days?
O'Connor: Well, the reason why I was on that show is I won the big, international fiddling championships. ... I'd travel around the country entering major championships, against the adults. So it was like a storybook journey of Americana, hanging out with these old fiddlers, going up against them and, most of the time, beating them.
TW: In that video, you'd only been playing the fiddle for about two years. What made it come easier for you than other people?
O'Connor: Well, I was a child prodigy, I guess. (Laughs) I don't know how else to say it. But there's no explaining that kind of thing, you know. It was just an innate ability to tune into a musical environment and focus and put yourself in there. I have a lot of teachers. What I've done with my music is try to be responsible with it and try to continue learning. I never relied or rested on my childhood abilities. So, even though I was winning those contests and people thought I was nearly at the top as a child, I never settled for that. I just wanted to keep on learning. And when I felt like I was hitting a wall, I would make a turn and learn something else.
So, for instance, shortly after that, at age 14, I started to immerse myself in jazz. And that's about all I did for quite some time - through my tenure with (renowned French violinist) Stephane Grapelli, at 17 and 18.
TW: One of your priorities is helping other kids get a head start. Tell me about your O'Connor Method and why that's so important to you.
O'Connor: There's a few other people, sort of like me, that had an abnormal intervention of American music, and then we could do something. But there's way too much in American music that's not being taught to the kids, especially on string instruments.
My method really addresses these concerns and issues that have come up over the course of my career to where my hope is that my method could contribute to making students more holistic as musicians – not only technically capable, but also artistically capable of inventing new musical ideas.
TW: One of the major differences between your method and the Suzuki Method seems to be that emphasis on traditional forms of American music.
O'Connor: (Pauses to consider.) Okay, it's a big subject. But, in essence, I'm fine with anything if it's not a monopoly. But when you have one system, which is basically the Suzuki/Japanese system, that dominates string education – I mean, like, almost completely – there's just something fundamentally wrong with that. (Laughs) No matter what it is. It could be the greatest system on earth, but it still doesn't give us many choices. Americans want choices, and when we're not given choices it gets frustrating.
TW: How will the show be structured, and who will you have playing with you?
O'Connor: I think Kelly Hall-Tompkins is gonna be there, and she's a wonderful violinist; Patrice Jackson, cellist; Gillian Gallagher, violist; Ivonne Hernandez, violin, and Kyle Kegerrieis (bass.)
Everybody will be featured on solos and duets, so it's almost like a revue. I'll introduce different folks, and there will be different pairings all through the evening; and then there will be some pieces where we will all come together as a big group. But the concept of the show is not all of us on the stage all the time. It's really to feature different aspects of string playing.
TW: What's next for you? Are you doing any recording in the near future?
O'Connor: Yes, I've got a project that I'm absolutely thrilled about. It's been a long time in the making. I'm releasing a DVD plus CD of my eighth and ninth concertos. We filmed them with youth orchestras: Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra and the New Jersey Youth Symphony.
My “Eighth Concerto” is a triple concerto; and, in this case, it's performed by the Ahn Trio. And my “Ninth Concerto” is called the “Improvised Violin Concerto.” I perform that with Boston, in Boston Symphony Hall.
These kids are just lookin' great on film - 100 kids - and they're so into it. It's fantastic. It's a lot better than looking at an old symphony orchestra with grumpy old guys sittin' there with no expression on their face, basically. (Laughs) So that will be comin' out in June, and it'll be my first DVD/CD release since “Appalachian Journey” with Yo-Yo Ma, 12 years ago.