Classical violinist and fiddle master are crossing paths

Joshua Bell and Mark O'Connor share a bill

Stage: Theater/Music/Dance

October 14, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Violin fans can double their pleasure Sunday night, thanks to a worthy charity and the mutual respect held by Joshua Bell and Mark O'Connor.

The nonprofit organization is Chimes, which serves people of all ages with disabilities throughout the mid-Atlantic region and beyond. For its annual fund-raiser, Chimes is presenting these two popular Grammy Award-winning violinists in a single concert, the first time they've shared a stage like this.

"We've certainly crossed paths before," Bell says. "And we've been on circus concerts before - the kind where there's a little of this, a little of that. But we have not played together yet. I have a lot of respect for Mark. He's a fantastic violinist. And he has the fastest bow arm that I've ever seen."

Whether the two will actually play together in Baltimore remains to be heard. "The concert's scheduled as two separate halves," O'Connor says, "but I'm hoping I can get Josh to sit in with us on a tune. I've known him for a while, and I feel like we've played together."

No wonder. Bell isn't just a prodigiously gifted talent in the field of classical violin. He has also earned considerable respect for his bluegrass fiddling with his longtime friend, bassist/composer Edgar Meyer, on the Grammy-nominated album Short Trip Home and on tour.

And Meyer frequently collaborates with O'Connor, the country's reigning traditional fiddler. So, at most, there's only one degree of separation.

Bell, accompanied by pianist Jeremy Denk, has chosen works by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Sarasate for Sunday's concert.

O'Connor will concentrate not on bluegrass fiddling, but jazz. He'll be joined by guitarist Frank Vignola and bassist Jon Burr. Together, these guys are known as the Hot Swing Trio, and they've made some hot recordings. "The group was formed about six years ago," O'Connor says. "It started out as a tribute to Stephane Grappelli, my mentor. People responded so positively to our acoustic swing music that it has kept the three of us together."

Grappelli, the legendary jazz violinist, greatly influenced O'Connor's musical development, much the way that venerable violinist and pedagogue Josef Gingold influenced Bell. One lesson both O'Connor and Bell obviously picked up was to be open to all that music has to offer.

Bell, 36, whose intensely lyrical playing of Brahms, Barber and Bernstein has kept him in the forefront of the classical world since he was in his teens, can move easily into the down-home fiddling world, playing alongside Meyer, guitarist Mike Marshall and mandolin/fiddle/guitar player Sam Bush. On those occasions, Bell's music is essentially written out, but the violinist has been feeling increasingly comfortable and loose with the style.

"When I was touring with Edgar and the group, it was very inspiring to hear these guys create something new every night," Bell says. "I started doing just a little bit of improvising, ornamenting differently. And that's something I can take back to classical music, where even when you just play the notes you can be free.

"Classical string players tend to be weaker in rhythm than our contemporaries in jazz and bluegrass. Working with these guys gives me a whole new level of rhythm that I can apply to classical music."

O'Connor, 43, was, like Bell, an early starter; he won the junior division of the National Old-Time Fiddlers Contest at 12. He could have stayed comfortably within traditional music, but he crosses boundaries with aplomb. Although he doesn't perform classical violin music as a rule, "that repertoire is hugely inspiring to me," O'Connor says. "I study it on my own. It's a big part of my life."

That inspiration has led to a series of exceptional compositions by O'Connor over the years, including six concertos, a set of spectacular Caprices for solo violin, an a cappella Mass and a kinetic answer to Vivaldi's Four Seasons - a jazzy, bluesy, bluegrassy piece called The American Seasons: Scenes of an American Life. "I want to be a serious musician no matter what the realm," O'Connor says.

Some high-profile classical artists have championed his work, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (who performed O'Connor's Double Concerto with the composer and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2000), and the Eroica Trio. "I'm so excited that these great players want to play my music," O'Connor says.

Composing continues to occupy a lot of his time. A string quartet premieres next summer. "And now that I've written six concertos, a seventh seems to be unnecessary," O'Connor says. "So I'd like to compose my first symphony in a couple years."

Meanwhile, he'll still do lots of performing, too, bringing his brilliant fiddling style to an ever-widening base of fans.

Time was when O'Connor drew skepticism in some quarters for stepping into classical territory, just as Bell and other classical performers did when they tried out different realms.

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