Talk to Mark O’Connor, fiddler extraordinaire and sometime collaborator with Yo Yo Ma, and you glimpse not only where music has been but where it’s going. And where it’s going seems to be a much more flexible, improvisatory, creative place thanks to exploding technology and the mingling of world cultures. O’Connor, his music and his philosophy will return to Peoria at 8 p.m. on Saturday.
Talk to Mark O’Connor, fiddler extraordinaire and sometime collaborator with Yo Yo Ma, and you glimpse not only where music has been but where it’s going.
And where it’s going seems to be a much more flexible, improvisatory, creative place thanks to exploding technology and the mingling of world cultures — a place, to be sure, lacking marble temples to high art but where great music of whatever kind will continue to flourish and find audiences.
O’Connor, his music and his philosophy will return to Peoria at 8 p.m. Saturday, when the acclaimed violinist appears with tenor John McDermott for a fundraiser at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Peoria Heights. McDermott will perform two songs that O’Connor has arranged in his inimitable Americana style — “Amazing Grace” and “Away in a Manger” — and O’Connor will do some improvisation of his own as well as solo pieces that he will select as the moment inspires him.
Even before O’Connor heads to Peoria, however, his new series of violin instruction books, “O’Connor Violin Method,” published by Shar Music, will have hit the stores. These books aim to trace the 400-year-old history of violin playing as they provide students with a basic foundation in the instrument. The selection of pieces — jazz, classical, folk, ragtime, blues, Latin and rock — reflect not only O’Connor’s omnivorous musical interests but also the reality of musical culture in our time.
This new reality was foreseen by that prescient genius a century ago: Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, who visited the United States in 1892 and stirred controversy when he stated what direction American classical music needed to follow — advice that he himself followed when he wrote his own “New World” Symphony inspired by the visit.
“He sort of gave us a memo — if you’re going to have an American classical music, you’re going to have to utilize what is best in music about your country, and that includes music from Native Americans and African Americans,” O’Connor said. “People at that time that were running the establishment didn’t want to hear that. Dvorak thought it was so weird. He couldn’t figure out that we had these rich, musical resources and the establishment turned its head.”
Rejection meant that blues, jazz, folk, country, ragtime and other forms of native-grown music — with a few exceptions like Gershwin — would bypass the classical establishment and end up nurturing 20th century popular culture. But now it’s time, O’Connor said, to reclaim this music and begin to reshape the classical genre.
Which is exactly what O’Connor, who has been ably trained in classical, jazz and folk alike, has been busy doing for most of his life. O’Connor’s music — like his “Fiddle Concerto”; “Fanfare for the Volunteer,” an orchestral piece; and “The American Seasons: Seasons of An American Life,” for orchestra and violin — synthesizes folk idioms with European forms much in the way that Dvorak had hoped.
Page 2 of 2 - But “American music” for O’Connor isn’t something narrowly national but literally global.
“World music is something that is really coming to vogue in the last 10 to 15 years, and America has always represented the world of music,” O’Connor said. “American string playing has been around for 400 years — the entire length of the violin itself. Where do you think people were from in the late 1500s (and afterwards)? Some of them were native. But all the others were coming here from all around the world. Not just Europe, not just Africa, not just South America, but the gypsies were over here, a lot of Middle Easterners, near-Asian, near-Eastern people were coming over during the Ottoman Empire.
“They were all populating Virginia, the Appalachian Mountains, where all the musical culture and language of America came out of. It’s just a fascinating musical story. And it’s the story of America as well.”
Gary Panetta is the fine arts columnist and a critic for the Peoria Journal Star. He can be reached at (309) 686-3132 or email@example.com.
Spirit of Hope
What: Appearance by tenor John McDermott and fiddler Mark O’Connor. Also featured are The Mistletones, an eight-man a capella choral group, and Anima Children’s Choir of greater Chicago.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Peoria Heights.
Tickets: $50. Concert tickets plus meet-and-greet festivities at 10 p.m. cost $150. Proceeds benefit the Radiation Oncology Program at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. Money is used to fund a self-assessment personal cancer risk program. For more information, call (309) 566-5666 or log on to www.spiritofhopeconcert.org.
Related event: A Spirit of Hope Mass will be open to all at St. Mary’s Cathedral at 4 p.m. A musical prelude begins at 3:15 p.m.