The coming ‘Seasons’
Renowned violinist/fiddler Mark O’Connor talks about his latest work
Despite his reputation for occasional aloofness, Mark O’Connor was wholly gracious, thoughtful, and down-to-earth when I talked with him about his forthcoming Chico concert. He and the youthful Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra traveling with him were in New Orleans, two-thirds of their way through the tour that will bring them to Chico’s Laxson Auditorium, where he will perform his new The American Seasons concerto, preceded by two other American works, Dan Coleman’s Long Ago the Radiant Day and John Adams’ Shaker Loops this Friday.
CN&R: The local NPR station says you would rather be called a fiddler than a violinist.
O’Connor: That certainly didn’t come from me. I see myself as a composer and as both a violinist and a fiddler. I know there are people who consider themselves one or the other, but I prefer the double moniker. I want to be accessible to all; I don’t want to exclude anybody.
If you ever do read reviews of your work, do you see people going off on tangents you consider wrong-headed? I ask this as someone who believes reviewing should “open up” works as much as determine whether they are good or bad.
Well, the only reviews I’m really interested in are the ones for works I mean to record, which I scour. Now, with The American Seasons, the New York Times’ Tony Scherman covered its world premiere in Troy, N.Y., and I thought he had a real handle on the piece. So when we put out the CD, we hired him to write a full-blown article for the album, which, as you said, really “opens it up” so more people can have access to it.
To what extent is this piece like program music? I mean specific pictures, as opposed to moods?
Well, I see pictures, I suppose, and then try to describe them, but I don’t necessarily expect anybody to view things as I do. If I were strictly programmatic, people would not be free to take the music in different ways. I am more concerned with atmosphere, and the atmosphere is America. In “Summer,” for example, there’s what I call a “happy-go-lucky blues,” where I have an image of a schoolboy walking down the road kicking a can. But you certainly don’t have to have that image to enjoy the music.
Sometimes people who write memoirs find the experience cathartic, a way of discovering more about themselves. Was your composing this piece at all like that?
I don’t think I use music to dig down inside me. When I compose, I’m actually struggling to make personal yearnings and ideas I already have accessible. The way I do this is already quite different, so I don’t really have to dig down to come up with something new.
You speak of creating “American music.” What do you mean by that?
Violin music. I think there are possibilities there that have not been touched. If there is a legitimately American violin music, it’s not really in the classical realm; it’s more roots music: fiddle music, jazz and the like. I think I’m doing things to start to change that. I think there could be a school of American violin playing. I’ve tried to help build this through my playing, my style, my composition, and my teaching at fiddle camps, for instance.
Do you ever set yourself against any other “Seasons” composers, Vivaldi, for example?
Actually, we’re doing that in Louisiana tonight: performing Vivaldi’s and my “Seasons"—pieces written over 300 years apart. It’s very interesting. People really like the combination.
Your notices also refer to your use of Jacques’ famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It.
Actually, that’s what gave me the individual impetus for The Seasons. I was going to base my Seasons on both the seasons of the year and the seasons of a human life. My cousin is a Shakespearean actor, and he reminded me of the speech, and so I laid the “Seven Ages of Man” on top of the conventional four seasons. Spring would be birth and infancy; summer, adolescence and coming of age; fall, stand-alone maturity; and winter, old age. I thought, “There it is. It’s going to write itself.”
However, I judge that you’re not as bleak as Jacques, who sees old age as a kind of blind, toothless second childhood.
No. I challenge Shakespeare’s notion of old age. I make my old person the only one left who’s still sensible, while the world around him goes insane.
Thus, in “Winter,” the fugue represents a kind of struggle, where all the people around this old person try to rob him of his life’s themes and use them for their own selfish reasons, which makes the themes he has so carefully nurtured become dissonant and angular. Then, approaching death, he reaches back for his own ancestral themes (which, in my case, are somewhat Irish) and lays them on top of this dissonant fugue. This is the high point of “Winter.”
The final cadenza represents the person’s last statements on earth, with the following coda representing the afterlife, in which the violin and the orchestra play in a new style, one that’s not been heard before, suggesting a new way to play music in the future.