All mixed up

Fiddler Mark O’Connor’s eclectic streak reaps untold rewards

Mark O’Connor isn’t afraid of a little name-calling.

After all, the violinist/composer cut his teeth on the fiercely competitive Texas fiddling championships as a teen, emerging as national champ. So it hardly worries him to be labeled with a term that embraces the crossover tendencies of many of today’s classical artists — the dreaded “e” word, eclectic.

“I started out to be eclectic,” he says, “when eclecticism was a dirty word.”

Today, being eclectic can be a gold mine. Audiences — and, hence, record label producers and concert hall managers — want versatility. But how to manage that without losing one’s artistic integrity is the great problem facing today’s performers. It’s something O’Connor is handling just fine, by doing exactly what he’s been doing all along: staying true to his unique vision of American music, past and present.

A native of Seattle, O’Connor began studying the violin at an early age. “I heard the emotional connection that it can make to people, even at the age of 8,” he recalls. “This same single instrument that was perfected 500 years ago — nothing fundamental about it has changed — has inspired so many generations. And the music played in that distant past is still relative today, from classical to folk. By assimilating these styles, I celebrate them. I’m a carrier of that tradition.”

O’Connor’s training in classical, jazz and folk styles led him to the renowned Texas fiddling championships, where he was not only the youngest to ever compete but the youngest to win. Still, his approach was not without some controversy. “There was resistance everywhere we toured,” says O’Connor. “It was from the different stylistic factions — Irish, folk, bluegrass. If you tried to do all of them, you were living dangerously.”

O’Connor still lives dangerously today, by assimilating American folk music into compositions that follow classical structure. Other American composers have done this sort of thing — most notably Aaron Copland, Douglas Moore and George Gershwin — but they didn’t go quite as far back into the earthy roots of the Texas fiddle.

At the age of 17, O’Connor auditioned as a guitarist for an upcoming tour by his longtime idol, legendary jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. After hearing that O’Connor was a violinist as well, Grappelli included him in duet performances throughout the tour. “He was my hero,” O’Connor says. “The biggest lesson he taught me is how he was able to take something personal — his own brand of music he invented for himself — and communicate it to the world.” The violinist recently recorded Hot Swing, a tribute album to Grappelli.

In the late ’80s, while working on his album Appalachia Waltz, O’Connor met with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who immediately expressed an interest in recording with O’Connor. The resulting album — which included a third performance partner, classical/country bassist Edgar Meyer — was a culmination of all of the sounds and styles in American music he had assimilated, taken back to its basic folk level. It’s uniqueness, honesty and lyric beauty propelled it to international success.

At 40, O’Connor has found himself in the enviable position of hearing his own music played in America’s concert halls. His upcoming tour features his latest major work, “The American Seasons,” performed at Spivey Hall with the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra. Set against a backdrop of 20th/21st-century American culture, the piece evokes the American lifecycle, from birth to coming of age.

“It’s full of the complexities I’ve always heard in the American musical vernacular,” O’Connor says. “It’s a culmination, compositionally.”

In this sell-out era of slick, over-produced commercial recordings destined to appeal to the lowest common denominator, O’Connor stands out by remaining true to his goal of achieving a deeper understanding of America’s musical roots while incorporating what he’s learned into 21st-century American classical music.

“I could do a commercial album,” he says. “The record companies would love it. But when I became a solo artist 12 years ago, I decided it was my time to put my best foot forward. I had spent years playing in bands, and for TV and studio work. I put these in my back pocket and said, ‘Now I’m gonna do this how I hear it.’”

Mark O’Connor performs Sun., Oct. 21, at Spivey Hall, Clayton College & State University, 5900 N. Lee St., Morrow. Show time is 3 p.m. $35. 770-961-3683.