The cold, drizzly weather of Sunday afternoon could not thwart the holiday warmth and cheer inside a sold-out Spivey Hall, where Mark O’Connor and Friends brought their “An Appalachian Christmas” tour show, based mostly upon O’Connor’s 2011 album of the same name. ArtsATL was present for the sound check and talked with O’Connor a couple of hours in advance of the concert. Here, first, are some brief excerpts from that conversation with the multi–Grammy-winning violinist/fiddler and composer.
ArtsATL: Many people have a stereotypical idea of what the word “Appalachian” implies, but the program for this afternoon’s concert promises a variety of music styles. So why the title “An Appalachian Christmas”?
Mark O’Connor: Well, I chose it because I like the sound of it. It really springs off my “Appalachia Waltz,” which I wrote 20 years ago. I consequently did an album by that name with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer [released in 1996], then Appalachian Journey [in 2000], which won a Grammy. So I have a trilogy now: Appalachia Waltz, Appalachian Journey and Appalachian Christmas.
ArtsATL: So the selection of music is really very personal.
O’Connor: It’s sort of like an interesting kind of party. If I was living in Appalachia and invited you over for Christmas, this is the music that would be going on in my house. We’d play some Christmas carols from Europe, from Hollywood, and we’d jam on some tunes [both] jazzy and bluegrass. This is what my Christmas would be about, musically.
ArtsATL: That certainly defies more “traditional” notions of “Appalachian.”
O’Connor: For anything I do that’s connected to any tradition, I’m always developing it and progressing it. I’m not a traditionalist; I’m a progressive musician and composer. Even when I do traditional music it’s not really traditional. But Appalachia is really interesting. I consider that the original melting pot and stir-fry of American culture.
ArtsATL: So you view American musical traditions as something that is hardly static.
O’Connor: American music is always expanding organically, through the musicians. The musicians couldn’t help but develop it. You can look at each genre, you can see the track even within one person. Jelly Roll Morton developed jazz, and he played ragtime earlier in his career. Bill Monroe was playing what we would consider string band music before he developed bluegrass. Bob Wills in Texas [was doing] old-time Texas fiddling and then developed western swing. So even within one person’s life and career, the music is developing as they put it on stage and make records.
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For recording the 2011 An Appalachian Christmas album, O’Connor engaged a bevy of big-name guest artists: soprano Renée Fleming, bluegrass-country singer Alison Krauss, jazz vocalist Jane Monheit, mandolinist Chris Thile, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, guitarist Sharon Isbin, bassist Edgar Meyer, and singer-sonwriters James Taylor and Steve Wariner. The album also features some sumptuous orchestration as well as some instruments, like dulcimer, that were only rarely used.
A live tour, however, is a different animal entirely, hardly something that can afford budgetary largesse. For this touring ensemble, O’Connor assembled a sextet of accomplished and musically flexible compatriots: violinist/vocalist Carrie Rodriguez, banjo player/vocalist Cia Cherryholmes, guitarist Joe Smart, bassist Kyle Kegerreis and O’Connor’s own son, mandolinist/vocalist Forrest O’Connor.
The printed program promised over two hours worth of music, with selections drawn from O’Connor’s An Appalachian Christmas “in no particular order.” The performance went beyond that list to include a good handful of other songs — opening, for example, with the quintessentially American carol, “Jingle Bells.” It was followed by another seasonal icon, the Mel Tormé/Bob Wills classic “The Christmas Song,” which does appear on the album.
The rest of the show was filled with fresh, engaging takes on carols and songs both old and new. The first half concluded with a surprise instrumental: “Linus and Lucy,” the Vince Guaraldi tune made famous by the TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which gave each member of the sextet a featured solo improv moment.
Worth mention is not only the keen instrumental playing but also the well-suited vocals of Rodriguez, Cherryholmes and Forrest O’Connor, in solo and combination. They had an opportunity to finally sing together in the country-gospel song “O Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” — a rendition that, frankly, was much more appealing than those of some rather famous names who have recorded it.
For audience who chose to remain after the concert proper, O’Connor gave an impassioned talk about string instrument education, its relevance for the future of American culture, and his innovative pedagogical method based upon American music.
Whether you prefer the An Appalachian Christmas CD or the live show is likely a matter of taste and immediacy. I love live music and will take a performance by this sextet of O’Connor’s any day, whether another live performance or a bootleg recording. There is good musical chemistry here that will surely evolve over the rest of the tour. American musicians are, after all, the most adaptable of species.