By JIM FUSILLI
None of this classical music in one corner, bluegrass in another, jazz in yet a third for the violinist and composer Mark O'Connor. It's all part of a whole in which different musical styles are blended naturally by and for the open-minded.
Consider his recent recordings, all available on his OMAC label: his composition "Americana Symphony," performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; "Mark O'Connor String Quartets No.'s 2 & 3"; "Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio Live in New York"; his "Double Violin Concerto" with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra; and his "Folk Mass" recorded with the 40-voice Gloriae Dei Cantores choir. In April, the 48-year-old Mr. O'Connor will issue a dazzling live recording, "Jam Session," featuring Bryan Sutton, Frank Vignola and Chris Thile, among others. This week, he's playing at the Blue Note here with bassist John Patitucci and guitarist Julian Lage.
Another project is his new, two-book "The O'Connor Violin Method." Subtitled "A New American School of String Playing," it's a guide for string teachers and violin students based on the development of technique through exposure to a variety of string music from every region in the U.S. Beginners move through African-American hoedowns, minstrel-show music, hymns, spirituals, folk songs, boogie-woogie and O'Connor compositions before turning to sea shanties, fiddle tunes and ragtime, as well as French-Canadian jigs, Scottish and Irish reels, Mexican mariachi and ranchera ballads, and movements from Antonín Dvořák's America-influenced Ninth Symphony. The method evolved from Mr. O'Connor's experiences at his string camps, where young players are introduced to classical, jazz and world music together with what he calls folk fiddling. (See www.markoconnor.com for information on this year's camps.)
When we met at his apartment here, Mr. O'Connor told me he came late to the violin. "I picked it up very late—at age 11. All my classical training was on guitar: reading, technique, form. Then I dived right into the world of fiddling and jazz."
His first violin teacher, Barbara Lamb, "was a hybrid too, a classical violinist who was learning to play bluegrass and country fiddle," Mr. O'Connor recalled. As he built his technical foundation as a violinist, his playing became informed by what he called "the language of American music."
Mr. O'Connor's unorthodox training continued with his mentors, Benny Thomasson, who "almost single-handedly invented a folk system with Texas-style or contest fiddling," Mr. O'Connor said, and Stéphane Grappelli, who "revolutionized and popularized the jazz violin." He says he's the only musician who was mentored by both.
In 1993, Mr. O'Connor recorded "Heroes," an album on which he plays with violinists ranging from country fiddlers Vassar Clements and Texas Shorty to classical music's Pinchas Zukerman and India's eclectic L. Shankar. For the listener, the album is a celebration of the instrument's versatility. For Mr. O'Connor, it was a revelation.
"These guys didn't know each other. I was introducing my heroes to each other," he said. "I thought it was a big moment for violin playing. The unknowing was holding some of these people back."
Prior to the sessions, Mr. Zukerman visited Mr. O'Connor in Nashville. "I asked him, 'Have you ever heard of L. Shankar?' I put his music on. His mouth dropped. He was in shock. He said, 'L. Shankar, East India . . . I must ask Zubin Mehta about this.' I thought, 'Oh my gosh. This is going to open up whole new avenues for fiddle music.'"
Mr. O'Connor's zigzag path to a satisfying career may seem an impractical model for young players, but he disagrees. "People used to say Mark O'Connor is unique; it can't be duplicated; it's not very viable. But if we take the model of training that encompasses American music, classical, jazz and world music, and implement it with proper technique, it's completely viable."
He believes early exposure to American music will help encourage more of it in concert settings. "If we can get 15-year-old classical students to swing, we're onto something. But there's not been enough music composed and developed that would encompass both of those things." He cites Béla Bartók, Dvořák and Astor Piazzolla as precedents for composers who infused classical composition with indigenous folk traditions to create synthesized forms. Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Charles Ives employed American folk traditions in their work. Mr. O'Connor said, "The door was being opened, but it never fully swung open all the way."
Mr. O'Connor spent a week in December as an artist-in-residence at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, teaching master classes by day and preparing for what would be a joyous and illuminating concert with well more than 100 young musicians on stage playing country, bluegrass, blues and jazz as well as Mr. O'Connor's compositions that embrace all those forms. At a master class I attended, he began his instruction with a 400-year-old African-American hoedown, "Boil 'em Cabbage Down"—it's the first lesson in his method books too—and built on it until it was a darting, complex piece. He played a piece of fiddle music by William Hamilton Stepp that appears note for note as the "Hoedown" in Copland's "Rodeo." At the concert at the Berklee Performance Center, an audience member with a less democratic view of music than Mr. O'Connor and the Berklee students, graduates and faculty of its new American Roots Music program might have sat there and thought, "Oh, that's swing. Wait, that's Stephen Foster. Hold on, that's Dvořák. Isn't that Grappelli's Hot Club? Now that's bluegrass." But very quickly, it all became one rich stream of American music.
"It wouldn't surprise me if in 20 years we had a host of composers who knew the whole vernacular of American music," said Mr. O'Connor, who will be responsible if his prediction comes true.