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Symphony hosts fiddle playing icon in tribute to ‘American Inspiration’

April 22, 2014 10:15AM

Mark O'Connor

The Southeast Kansas Symphony will conclude its 2013-2014 series with a tribute to “American Inspiration,” featuring a guest appearance by Mark O’Connor, an icon of American fiddle playing, violin and composition. The concert is set for 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 27, in Pittsburg’s Memorial Auditorium. In addition to performing with the symphony, O’Connor will present a free public lecture and master class at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 25, in the Sharon K. Dean Recital Hall in McCray Hall on the Pittsburg State University campus.

Raul Munguia, artistic director and conductor for the SEK Symphony, said the symphony and the university are excited about hosting O’Connor, who has an international reputation as a classical, bluegrass, jazz and country violinist, fiddler and composer. He has also developed a widely used technique for stringed instrument instruction called the O’Connor Method that emphasizes American music and playing techniques.

O’Connor was a child prodigy, who at the age of 13, won national titles on the guitar, fiddle and mandolin. One of those titles, the National Flat Pick Guitar Championship, was earned at the bluegrass festival in Winfield, Kan.

Over the years, O’Connor has composed, arranged and recorded American music across a range of genres, including folk, classical and jazz. His many awards include two Grammys, eight Grammy nominations, seven Country Music Association (CMA) awards, seven national and grand master fiddling championships, two national guitar championships and one world mandolin championship.

As a teenager, O’Connor played guitar with the David Grisman Quintet and then violin and guitar alongside Steve Morse with the rock-fusion instrumental band, The Dregs. Later, he assembled two country bands, The American Music Shop house band and The New Nashville Cats.

As a session musician, O’Connor played on more than 500 albums, recording with stars like Dolly Parton, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Randy Travis and the Judds.

O’Connor’s compositions have been performed by major symphonies around the world and are part of the soundtrack for productions such as Ken Burns’ “The War,” and the animated film, “Johnny Appleseed.” One of his most popular compositions, “Appalachia Waltz” (appearing on the album of the same title), has been adopted by Yo-Yo Ma as part of his live performance repertoire, and is used frequently as music for weddings.

On Sunday, O’Connor will join the Southeast Kansas Symphony in a performance of his Improvised Violin Concerto. O’Connor describes the piece as “the first concerto to feature an entirely improvised solo part over a through-composed orchestral score.”

O’Connor said he dedicated each of the five movements of the concerto to basic, widely interpretable elements. The first four movements are “Fire” (passionate, intense, and otherworldly), “Air” (a new kind of energy that extinguishes the embers remaining from the first movement), “Water” (introduces the human condition) and “Earth” (invoking blues, rock, and heavy metal to represent the relationship between Earth and humanity).

“The final movement manifests what I call the fifth element, Faith,” O’Connor said. “It is an invention of humanity, a celebration of the human spirit. After a series of hymnic chord sequences, the movement proceeds through southern gospel refrains before morphing into gospel hoedowns and Buzzard Lope dances. It culminates in a throw-down jubilee.”

The performance program includes two additional works to complete the theme of “American Inspiration.” It opens with Aaron Copland’s “An Outdoor Overture,” followed by Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, more commonly known as his “New World Symphony.”

Tickets for the Sunday concert are $7 for adults and $5 for children and senior citizens. PSU students, faculty and staff are admitted for free with a PSU ID. Tickets are available at the PSU Ticket Office in the Weede PE Building, 1701 S. Homer, 620-235-4796,, or at the door prior to the performance. The master class and lecture, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, is free and open to the public.

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