Mark O'Connor: Americana Symphony

Mark O'Connor is a product of America's rich aural folk tradition as well as classical and flamenco music. His musical journey began with two musical giants, Benny Thomasson - a folk fiddler and Stephane Grappelli - a French jazz violinist. Between these musical influences, Mark O'Connor shaped these influences into a new American Classical music, and a vision of an entirely American school of string playing.

Previous albums have received musical acclaim. His first recorded on the Sony Classical record label, 'Appalachia Waltz', was collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer, and really set the tone for a new American music idiom. The tremendously successful follow-up release, 'Appalachian Journey', received a Grammy Award in February 2001.

In April 2000, Mr. O'Connor premiered his 4th violin concerto "The American Seasons: Seasons of an American Life," at Troy Music Hall in Troy, N.Y. The New York Times said "... if Dvorak had spent his American leisure time in Nashville instead of Spillville, Iowa, 'New World Symphony' would have sounded like this."

This year, Mark released a new album, "Americana Symphony" which features Mark's first symphony - "American Symphony: Variations on Appalachia Waltz." It also included Mark's Concerto No. 6 "Old Brass." The entire album is a wonderful expression of Mark's ability to express the glory of American music.

"Americana Symphony" is a walk across the landscape of American through music. Mark takes us on a musical journey, from his first movement "Brass Fanfare: Wide Open Spaces" which incorporates the key phrases of his symphony, it clearly expresses the expansive landscapes of America. The music owes a great deal to Copland, with its expression of wonderment for the beauty of this country, with Mark's use of brass and percussion. It sets the tone for the rest of the journey.

"New World Fanciful Dance" starts with a jig with woodwinds, but quickly becomes a dance molded in the music of the Appalachian Mountains filled with elements from a variety of different cultures - truly a melting pot of music. The themes are strong, and yet light and fanciful, vibrant and rich using a broad spectrum of tonal colors.

“Different Paths Towards Home” is a fugue, which ties together musical elements of hundreds of years ago, with a reflective sense of what it is to be an immigrant, yet striving to call this place home. The music starts in the Great Smokey Mountains looking out on the vastness of the world ahead.

“Open Plans Hoedown” is just that – a hoedown, but incorporating a variety of different rhythms as it dances across the open plains of the mid-West. The movement continues to build and press on, striking out not on a new journeys, but on various new challenges of the push west.

“Soaring Eagle, Setting Sun” is the fifth movement and involves the ascending the Rocky Mountains. In many respects this was the most difficult part of the journey, and Mark does a wonderful job of expressing the difficulties facing the pioneers. The music starts slow, but eventually creates a sense of the struggle and exultation as the trials are overcome, leading into the final movement, “Splendid Horizons.”

The final movement brings the piece to a triumphant conclusion. As miraculous as the vistas are of the Pacific Ocean, “Splendid Horizons” gives the listener a chance to revel in the majesty of both the views and the journey.

The music is as sweeping as the landscapes of America. Copland and Dvorak, who also wrote music indicative of the West and the New World, incorporated tension and struggle in their music; while their pieces have triumphant ends, there are elements during the journey that are dark and ominous. Even in Mark's fifth movement "Soaring Eagle, Setting Sun" there is a sense of optimism in the music, a sense of success. Yes, the West was eventually tamed, but numerous people died in the process. I didn’t hear much of their struggle in the music.

Really great music shifts between dark and light, tension and release. This symphony didn’t move in the darker circles, so when it became triumphant, the glory wasn’t as great as it might have been. However, that said, the music is strong, well orchestrated, with a strong sense of Americana, which is what Mark was going for.

Mark O’Connor has extended the sense of American classical music with his new symphony “Americana Symphony.” I am certain this is just a strong beginning with many more to come.

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