Volume 75, Number 44 | March 22 -28 2006

Courtesy Cohn Dutcher Associates

A violinist in fiddler’s clothes

By Michael Clive

Note to violin aficionados: when you’ve been stroking the strings with your bow all night, strumming a violin is not as easy as you might imagine. After quickly but gently lowering the instrument with your neck hand, you have to strum with the thumb of your bow hand, which must remain free and relaxed while your other fingers are tensed, keeping the bow clear of the strings. Perhaps for this reason, strumming is none too common among piano trios. But there was plenty at last Thursday’s evening concert by fiddler Mark O’Connor’s Edgeffect Ensemble. The trio played with plenty of old-fashioned brio and charm at Bargemusic, the chamber music performance space tucked snugly into a vintage barge moored at the Fulton Ferry Landing.
The program focused exclusively on compositions by O’Connor and, in its nautical setting, had something of “The Captain’s Paradise” about it. O’Connor, genial and jaunty but always in total command, wore a sporty, untucked shirt that allowed him ample freedom of movement for bowing or climbing the mast while his colleagues on piano and cello, Soyeon Lee and Soo Bae — who happen to be beautiful women a decade or two his junior — were glamorously outfitted in glittery black evening wear.

O’Connor identifies himself as a fiddler, a term that inhabits two very different musical worlds. And until he came along, no single soloist was equally welcome in both. In classical music, “fiddler” is an insider’s word that denotes respectful, affectionate collegiality among accomplished violinists. To the rest of us, fiddlers are associated with country and roots music — Nashville cats, not conservatory brats.

O’Connor has done more than anyone else to make country music safe for classical musicians, bringing it respect and technical ability from the other side. Among classical violinists, no soloist has been more influential. More than just listening, they are lining up to collaborate and learn from his unique strengths as a performer — a lightness of bowing, a fluidity and ease that make the most difficult passages seem effortless, a lilting way with a phrase.

In O’Connor’s hands, all music is palpably close to the basic human impulses to sing and dance. But the enormous enjoyment that he and Edgeffect derive from their playing belie its sheer technical impressiveness. For speed and precision like O’Connor’s, Paganini was rumored to have made a pact with Satan himself.

To understand the stunning impact this style of playing has had on other musicians, listen to Yo-Yo Ma’s first recording of the Bach cello suites, before his famous partnership with O’Connor. Then listen to his second, after they had toured together. It is markedly different and, if possible, even better: sprightlier, more expressive.

In their current New York tour, Edgeffect’s program includes O’Connor’s “Miniatures,” written in 1989; his new Trio No. 2, “Strange Rims,” a world premiere; his Fiddle Sonata; and his Trio No. 1, commissioned by the Eroica Trio and premiered in 2004. Subtitled “Poets and Prophets,” it draws inspiration from the life and works of Johnny Cash. All of these works, no matter where their harmonic and rhythmic excursions lead, remain close to their thematic sources in southern gospel, country fiddling traditions, hoedowns and porch music, even jazz and blues. Despite the refinement of the playing, you can hear resonance of the jug, the washtub bass, the banjo and guitar, the improvisational lick.

As an encore at Bargemusic, O’Connor offered his best-known work, “Appalachia Waltz,” which seems to distill a century of American country life and music into a concentrated, melancholy recollection of times gone by. As always, he made it seem deceptively easy.

Edgeffect plays Makor Classical Cafe, 35 West 67th Street this Thursday, March 23. For more details, call 212-601-1000 or visit markoconnor.com.

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