Acclaimed fiddler Mark O’Connor is a big proponent of American music.
Instead of young violinists being told to learn and practice only the works of European masters, he thinks they should learn the works of American composers. So, it seems fitting that O’Connor switched his primary instrument in 2010 from an 1830 French violin to one made in Portland, by Jonathan Cooper.
And his violin is not only American, but resilient. It fell to the ground at a South Dakota theater in 2014 and suffered multiple fractures, including a 14-inch long crack. O’Connor had the instrument rushed back to Cooper, who fixed it in his Portland shop.
“I’m still playing it, and it sounds better than ever,” said O’Connor, 55, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. “What he did was major surgery, for a fiddle. It is such fabulous instrument.”
O’Connor and his Maine-made fiddle will perform a program titled “American Fiddle” with the Portland Symphony Orchestra at two PSO Pops! concerts at Merrill Auditorium in Portland Saturday and Sunday. O’Connor will perform original pieces, including his “Fiddle Concerto,” “Appalachia Waltz” and “Strings & Threads Suite.” The latter he’ll perform with his wife, violinist Maggie O’Connor.
The rest of the program features the symphony, performing American music, such as selections from the show “Oklahoma!,” four dance episodes from Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” and “Fiddle-Faddle” from Leroy Anderson.
O’Connor said he likes playing with a symphony because he gets to play different music than he would with his O’Connor Band. That group, which includes his wife, son and daughter-in-law, won a Grammy in February in the category of best bluegrass album, for “Coming Home.”
He said he likes to create pieces, like his “Fiddle Concerto,” that ride “the fine line” between pops and “serious music” and draw upon his other musical influences, like jazz, bluegrass and folk.
O’Connor’s first musical instrument as a grammar schooler was guitar, and he played classical, world and folk. Then, when he was about 11 years old, he saw a Cajun fiddle player on a PBS TV program and became hooked. He took up the fiddle, studying all types of music, and never looked back. Besides performing and recording around the world, he has impacted music education with a style of teaching known as the O’Connor Method.
With talk lately of cutting funding for things like public broadcasting, O’Connor thinks it’s important to remember the influence something like that has. Without public television, he argues, he might never had been turned on to the fiddle playing and gone down a different career path.
“When you’re a little kid, growing up in Seattle, all you know is what’s around you,” said O’Connor. “So the public TV stations gave us diversity in music. I would not have had access to as much music as I did if not for public TV and radio.”