LIVE: Mark & Maggie O’Connor @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 2/5/16
Review by Steven Stock
Photographs by Tim Raab
What’s more beautiful than the sound of Mark O’Connor’s violin resonating through the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall? We found out after his brief opening solo set, when Maggie O’Connor – his wife – joined him onstage, and the couple launched into “Emily’s Reel” from their recent album Duo. A lovely song, beautifully arranged for two violins, played by world-class musicians in a hall renowned for its glorious acoustics – it was about as close to heaven as you’re apt to get in downtown Troy.
Beyond entertaining an appreciative crowd with “an evening of American classics,” the O’Connors also had an educational agenda. Mark spoke passionately about how the violin/fiddle is suited to a variety of genres, from classical to jazz, blues and rock, and wondered aloud why any performer would willingly be confined to just one. He also lamented the dearth of great American composers aside from Gershwin and Copland, arguing rather persuasively that we should do more to ensure that students are exposed to and learn to appreciate music in all its varied forms.
“I want more kids playing this instrument than video games,” declared Mark.
Unlikely perhaps, but he’s certainly doing his part, overseeing a summer youth camp where he implements and refines the O’Connor Method. Mark fondly recalled his own childhood lessons which could run 12-15 hours, before breaking out a battered white fiddle. “This was actually a barn decoration,” he confided. “Benny (Thomasson, O’Connor’s early teacher) traded a fishing rod for this, and I went on to win all the national fiddling championships with it – (despite) seven cracks in all the worst places.”
It’s hard to pick highlights from such a consistently riveting performance, easier perhaps to note the variety of moods that were evoked. Mark’s solo rendition of “La Bamba” brought a few chuckles from the audience, with his unexpected flourishes somehow droll in a manner reminiscent of Eugene Chadbourne’s deconstruction of “Eight Miles High.” Conversely his version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” was dead serious, possessed by a keening intensity that managed to convey the melancholy lyrics without recourse to language.
Equally striking was the way the O’Connors picked material that paid homage to their influences and collaborators. Hence a forlorn excursion through “Faded Love” served tribute to Bob Wills, while bluegrass great Byron Berline was acknowledged with a masterful rendition of “Gold Rush.” “F.C.’s Jig,” from Mark’s initial collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and “Appalachia Waltz” best illustrated how O’Connor is fusing traditional American music with classical. Could there be heaven on earth, in Troy of all places? Thanks to the O’Connors, you betcha – if only for an hour-and-a-half or so!