An instrument of magic Music: Virtuoso Mark O'Connor has earned the genius label.

May 02, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Some people see Mark O'Connor standing in front of a symphony orchestra, bow in hand and his instrument tucked under his chin, and consider him a violinist. Others know him for the solos he has added to dozens upon dozens of country singles and call him a fiddler.

There are even those who pay less attention to the type of music he plays than to his extraordinary proficiency on his instrument and dub him a genius, pure and simple.

But for the 35-year-old musician, it's all pretty much one and the same.

"My career is not as much about separation as kind of blurring distinctions and bringing it all together," says O'Connor, over the phone from his home in Nashville. "So when I play in more of a folk setting, I bring maybe a classical type of compositional consciousness to it. And when I play with orchestra and chamber musicians, I bring my folk influences to the music."

"He is so virtuosic at what he does," says cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has recorded and toured with O'Connor. "He's a maniac. He does a lot of [technical] things that I think are part of the Celtic tradition, but also things that he's figured out on his own. Because he has that kind of facility. He's tall and lanky, but his bow-arm is like rubber. Meaning that it's perfectly loose, that He can therefore put it into any configuration of patterns that he wants to."

That much is made plain on O'Connor's current album, "Midnight on the Water" (the basis for his concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tomorrow afternoon). A collection of solo performances on violin, mandolin and guitar, it stands as a testament to both his varied interests and his virtuosity.

Listen to the six caprices he wrote and performed, and you hear the work of a player and composer who fully understands the passion and playfulness -- not to mention the sense of structure and technique -- that fueled the famed caprices of composers Peitro Locatelli and Nicola Paganini.

Cue up one of the album's improvisations, and what comes through is a bluesy joviality that draws on everything from the gypsy-inflected jazz of Stephane Grappelli to the rip-roaring Western Swing of Bob Wills. As for "Midnight On the Water/Bonaparte's Retreat," the 7 1/2 -minute medley is a mini-compendium of fiddle lore, drawing freely from Celtic, Scandinavian and American old-timey fiddle traditions.

L And that's not counting what he does on guitar and mandolin.

This eclectic, tri-instrument format O'Connor has worked within since he was a pre-teen, playing in and around Seattle. What's all the more astonishing is that he's essentially self-taught.

"You don't go to a school, necessarily, to learn what I do," says O'Connor, who these days is professor of fiddling at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

On the one hand, following his own muse clearly broadened O'Connor's scope musically. By the time he turned 20, he had not only made a name for himself in fiddle circles, but was wowing jazz fusion fans with his work in the Dixie Dregs. Still, it wasn't until he moved to Nashville in the mid-'80s, at the invitation of producer and guitarist Chet Atkins, that O'Connor truly made his mark.

Voted the Country Music Association's Musician of the Year for five years running, O'Connor is perhaps the biggest non-singing star in country music. "He came upon the session scene in Nashville and just knocked everybody over," says keyboardist John Hobbs, a veteran Nashville session musician and producer.

"When you're in the same room with him, his genius is so apparent. And the thing about Mark is, he never stops playing when he has a fiddle in his hands. In the recording studio, you do a take on a song, then you go back [to the control room] to listen.

"Well, as he walks down the long hall to get to the control room, he's playing the whole time. It's almost like [the violin] is another part of his body, he's so in tune with it."

"Playing the fiddle, that's his way of thinking," says Ma. "He's fiddling, but then, he's listening to whatever else is going on around him at the same time. So he's very aware of what's going on. He can talk and follow a conversation. And yet the fingers are moving, figuring out different permutations and patterns."

To Ma, the most amazing thing about O'Connor's constant noodling is that the flow of music is never impeded by the kind of technical considerations that bedevil other players. "Usually, you have to go through a certain translation," he says. "It's, 'OK, I want this, therefore I must do that.' Right? So there's something that's in-between.

"But with Mark, there's so little impedance between what comes out and what he's actually thinking. That's one of the qualities that floors people. It's his pure thinking. It just comes out."

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