Mark O'Connor: String Quartets No.'s 2 & 3 striking and new

Mark O’Connor is interested in creating a new American music, taking elements from his own roots to create something edgy, energetic and innovative. His newest CD, String Quartets 2 & 3 steps up enthusiasm for the American art form of extreme fiddle playing. Not only do the licks and grinds of the fiddle come through with striking color, but he experiments with the classical form of string quartet. Fiddlers to classical violinists and pretty much any one else interested in virtuoso string performance will be thrilled by this new CD.

When I first looked at the CD, I thought the title for String Quartet No 2, “Bluegrass” would leave me with a sense of something country, something Appalachian, something I would enjoy but I’d heard before. Imagine my surprise when the first minute I was embarked on a journey like no other. The music is anything but old and acquainted. The first minute could have been written by any number of modern composers there is such a gritty edge and rhythmic intensity, a hallmark of modern quartet writing. However, only Mark could take that same edge and transfer it naturally into the fascinating bluegrass music that takes over for the remainder of the movement.

The second movement keeps the pace, but steps up the intensity. I can only image the endless hours this group must have worked together to integrate the various rapid elements Mark wrote in this striking hyper-active movement. Just listening to it once through was not enough. It was only after the fourth time that I could wrap my head around the intricate intensity of the music.

As is typical with bluegrass music, there needs to be a chance to reflect. Adding rich slides and double stops to the music to re-create a strong sense of American bluegrass, Mark is able to craft a series of melodies that sound wholly familiar and yet remarkably new. Each member of the quartet is highlighted, as are a number of musical styles. Yet the movement retains a unity, seamlessly moving through to create a whole.

The final movement starts with strong slides in unison through the quartet and then moves into a slow section. Slowly the piece returns to the faster virtuoso performances of the early movements, eventually bringing back the slides in reverse to end the piece. Mark’s String Quartet No. 2 “Bluegrass” is a fast paced journey through the styles of bluegrass and extreme fiddle playing, rather like compacting a 2 hour concert in just over half an hour. The journey is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

If you’ve ever heard Mark’s Americana Symphony, you will be familiar with some of the phrasings in his String Quartet No. 3 “Old Time”. Again, like Quartet No. 2, the piece starts at a rapid tempo, but in Quartet No. 3 the sense of “Old Time” is instantly evident. The rapid ascents and descents against each other create a gritty sound that comes straight from the heart of the music of the Old South.

The second movement sounds like a series of old time musicians who’ve gathered together to jam with their favorite tunes. There are elements that are immediately familiar and yet like nothing you can place your finger on. Occasionally the music gets a bit repetitive, but that’s hardly a fault when the reference material can be pretty monotonous.

Picking up the pace, the third movement returns to a more energized format. As with the second movement, there is a fair amount of minimalist approach to the music, musical figures repeating again and again – although nothing to the extent of Philip Glass. The energy and intensity forces the phrases to continually develop, discover and transform the piece into something new.

The final movement returns to the sense of musicians in a jam session. There are times when individual gets to shine and yet other times when the entire ensemble is so in-touch with each other the music is a unified front. At the end it’s impossible to keep your foot still with the feel-good sense of the music.

I preferred Mark O’Connor’s String Quartet No. 2; it is a better overall piece, more indicative of the roots style of music. However, the performances of both quartets are amazing. I would like to speak about the various performances of the individual musicians, but Mark has done such a nice job integrating the entire quartet together (and each of the instrumentalists working together as a single unit) it is nearly impossible to pick out any individual performance. When Mark chose to work with Ida Kavafian, Paul Neubauer and Matt Haimovitz, he obviously opted to work with musicians of such a caliber to create not a collection of solo performances, but a unified ensemble which perfectly matches his music.

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