By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Mark O’Connor has lent his wide-ranging instrumental virtuosity to folk, jazz, rock, and classical music. He has recorded and toured with icons of all genres, composed fiddle concertos, and translated his signature fiddling style into a comprehensive, widely used teaching method. O’Connor has now written a 430-page memoir detailing his experiences from the time, rising from humble beginnings, he burst on the scene in 1974 as a 13-year-old fiddler and flatpicking guitar champion until he began working with guitarist and producer Chet Atkins in 1982.
The most memorable passages in the book are those on his first mentor, Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, and Stéphane Grappelli, with whom he toured. Of his transition into classical music after playing a concert of fiddle standards and swing classics with members of the Chicago Symphony calling themselves the CSO Okies, O’Connor recounts that “Burl Lane, the orchestra’s principal contra-bassoonist who doubled as saxophone player in the group, told me that nearly the entire first violin section was in the audience. Years later the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of my Double Violin Concerto.”
I heard O’Connor and his wife Maggie at the Lockenhaus Festival on a sweltering night in July 2015 on a program called “Appalachian Waltz.” They chatted about their teaching method and recordings and spun out ten cuts from their brand-new CD until the normally restrained Lockenhaus audience was on the verge of dancing in the aisles. One of Mark O’Connor’s solos that night was the Allemande from Bach’s Partita No. 2; his playing was closer to work done by the most forward-thinking of the original-instrument crowd. The other acts on the bill were the Kelemen and Van Kuijk quartets—two of the world’s best—playing classical fare. The message to parents was clear: it’s okay to let your children grow up to be fiddlers.