Crossing strings

Mark O’Connor, fiddling champion, brings string septet to Rialto Theater

Staff writerMarch 29, 2013 

When Mark O’Connor became America’s national fiddling champion as a lanky, long-haired 12-year-old from Seattle, he probably wouldn’t have predicted that 40 years later, he’d be teaching Suzuki-trained college students how to improvise, teaching other teachers how to help them do it and playing his own fusion string quartets in front of classical audiences.

But then O’Connor has never done things quite the way you’d expect. His concert Saturday in the Rialto Theater (plus his string workshop at the University of Puget Sound today) will be no exception.

“Classical players are still wanting to be creative after a long dormant stretch, and that’s healthy,” said O’Connor on the phone after finishing a weekend teacher training course in San Diego. “To assume that classical players should only interpret and not replenish the literature is a bad track. That’s the track classical music has been on for too long.”

It’s not O’Connor’s track, though. Growing up in a poor family in Seattle, O’Connor made it big in Nashville by winning national titles on fiddle, guitar and mandolin by the time he was 12, competing against adult professionals. He’s still considered America’s greatest fiddler based on those records, but he’s forged a different path since the days he played country tunes on stage with the likes of Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.

The New York Times has called O’Connor’s path “one of the most spectacular journeys in recent American music.” ODuringver the past 40 years, he’s studied with jazz violin virtuoso Stephane Grappelli, collaborated with musicians from Winton Marsalis to Yo Yo Ma, and developed a crossover compositional style that’s seen premieres by violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and commissions by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. His “Fiddle Concerto” has seen more performances (more than 200) than any other violin concerto written in the past 40 years; his “Americana Symphony” has been likened compositionally to the work of Aaron Copland.

It’s a musical journey of violin mastery, genre crossing and improvisational creativity – which is exactly what he’ll bring to the Rialto stage Saturday night, along with six other string players (violins, viola, cello, guitar and double bass) who share his vision and who’ve risen through his summer camp training in South Carolina and Boston.

“The concert’s called ‘An American Music Celebration,’ and it’s a little bit like a review show, kind of like a journey through the American string scene,” O’Connor said. “You’re going to hear fiddle tunes, classical music, jazz. There’s some European classical music, and my third string quartet, the ‘Old Time.’”

And true to O’Connor’s unique vision of music as inclusive rather than hierarchical, everyone gets a turn with solos, duets, quartets and ensemble pieces.

“The concert reflects the concept of my string camps,” O’Connor said. “It’s an inclusive concert where we’re sharing music and playing together. It’s not everyone in their separate worlds – first the classical group, then the jazz band.”

O’Connor also will mix worlds today at the University of Puget Sound. At an open master class, he’ll do what’s increasingly become a mission for him: helping classically trained musicians open up to their own creativity and improvisation.

“Musicians inherently want to be creative, but those who are not were those who were trained out of it,” he said, referring to methods such as the Suzuki, which emphasizes strict repetition of mostly 18th-century pieces. “All that memorization, the ear training, the repetition – over the years, it gets hard to redo the wiring. My role ... is a kind of cultural intervention, where they can start to step back and look at the possibilities of what they can do.”

Or, in fact, to teach them that from the beginning. O’Connor’s string method, now into level three plus books aimed at middle and high school orchestras, has been scrutinized in the media and adopted by hundreds of teachers nationwide. The method teaches the same basic string techniques as other methods, but with a big difference – it features American tunes, which are familiar to students and open up the field for improvisation, even right at the very beginning.

“The materials I use are ones with robust structures ... that musicians can be creative and improvise with,” O’Connor said. “ ‘Ode to Joy’ is a beautiful tune, but has no possibilities for improvisation.”

“I think it’s great,” said Pamela Margon, an Olympia violinist and teacher who was the first in Washington state to be certified in the O’Connor method two years ago. “He’s done a smart job in choosing these timeless classics that kids know without knowing it, and parents know, too. I’ve used other methods and I feel that this is the one that kids really want to learn. That’s really important, because violin is so hard that material is everything.”

While his method, like any method, is a jumping-off point for those who later want to study a particular genre in-depth, O’Connor already is planning more advanced books that use virtuosic American repertoire such as Samuel Barber, the Heifetz arrangements of Gershwin and Daniel Roumain’s “Hip-Hop Etudes” to teach higher technique.

“My method’s purpose is to give students the foundation to be great 21st-century string players,” said the fiddler. “That means to have a great technique, but also to write and improvise. It’s more inclusive of styles that will allow musicians to participate in more environments than just the symphony.”

Mark O’Connor and the Mark O’Connor string quartet

When: 7:30 p.m. March 30

Where: Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma

Tickets: $24/$34/$44/$59

Information: 253-591-5894,

Also: University of Puget Sound string workshop, 11 a.m. today, Schneebeck Hall, North 17th Street and Union Avenue, Tacoma; free and open to public participation

Information: 253-879-3700,

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@

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