CROSSING THE LINE

Don’t use the word “crossover” when you talk with Mark O’Connor. The one-time fiddle prodigy (he won a national competition so many times they kicked him out before he was 21) turned virtuoso-teacher-composer doesn’t like that term to describe the way he has integrated folk, country and pop styles into classical music because of its negative connotations from the ‘70s.

“That scares them away,” he said in an interview form his new home in New York City. “‘Cross-pollination’ invites people in.”

But whatever you call it, O’Connor’s amalgamation has astounded music lovers from all camps, and he’s attracted colleagues and fans as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma and the Dixie Dregs.

It was with cellist Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer that O’Connor created the “Appalachian Waltz” albums, one of which won a Grammy and the other which set the music world on its ear. Several years later, O'Connor formed a new chamber ensemble, the Appalachia Waltz Trio, which features young cellist Natalie Haas and violist Carol Cook, to carry on the legacy. The trio plays two concerts at the Rockwood Women’s Club on the afternoon of Sunday, May 21, under the auspices of UCSB Arts & Lectures as part of the Chamber-Music-In-Historic-Sites series.

Q. You recently relocated to New York.

A. Yes, nine months ago. I was ready for it. I wanted to be in the Big City because I was anxious to start even more to groups to do all the types of compositions I’m creating. Now I’m right in the center of the string world and it’s great access to these brilliant players. You tend to work at your best when you’re a local.

What struck you about the two players you created the Appalachian Trio with when you first heard them?

I was so happy to discover their keen interest in what I was doing so that I could really get started on the legacy of the Appalachian music. They were tailor-made for it with their classical training and love for new alternative and folk music. Both of them have said that they’d never thought about combining their training and techniques together the way they do in my group before they actually did it. So I’m really gratified that I could identify musicians who had a life and musical experience but hadn’t yet been in a position to make them blossom at once.

Did you recognize your younger self in Natalie, a similar prodigy who perhaps felt out of place?

Sure. I felt a mentor role. I recognized situations that were similar to when I was young and joined various groups as experiments. I think I was bound to find younger players because my music style and ideas of cross-pollinating fiddle music with classical music is a notion that younger players can approach and be artistically successful with a lot faster. Why not get them in their twenties? The opportunity is there because when musicians come out of music school now, they’re not necessarily on the common track followed by classical prodigies years ago. There isn’t the automatic situation where you win some awards and someone important endorses you and, boom, you get to play at Carnegie Hall. There are too many good musicians and too few opportunities. So what happens to these incredible musicians who aren’t Hillary Hahn and Sarah Chang? They’re looking to diversify their experiences and music, and I’ve been meeting so many of them right now right here in New York. That’s been inspiring for me.

What can you tell me about the new work commissioned by UCSB that you will premiere here?

It’s a small, five-minute piece I completed during the first half of the tour – we haven’t even rehearsed it yet. It’s called “In the Summertime.” It’s a very simple piece with a plaintive melody, but at the same time it’s very pretty and moving. The “A” part is about the feeling of summertime, when you’re young and have a sense of optimism about the world and your life ahead of you. The “B” part is about looking backward and forward at same time, struggling to find that place again as we grow older – the great memories, and bittersweet feelings in longing for something more serious and profound yet still as freeing as when you were young.

That sounds somewhat autobiographical. Did this come from looking back wistfully?

I’ve had some thoughts like that while on this tour. But it feels like no matter how hard life gets for me, I enjoy this playfulness that I wish I could share with others. When I see young musicians grow older and get set in their ways, and maybe get cranky or bitter or feel like things should be handed to them, I realize what a profound transition that is. It’s been coming up because, obviously, I’ve been around a lot of young musicians now. It makes me think about, as you mentioned, when I was at where Natalie is now.

But you never stop growing, or stay in one place very long, certainly not long enough to get bitter. Heck, 17 years ago you gave up an extremely lucrative career as a session player because it wasn’t challenging enough. How have you kept that sensation of a 20-year-old just setting out on a new path?

I don’t know exactly, but I would hope that I could impart my sense of enthusiasm about new adventures, and my optimism about the near future to all the young people I work with. I see them struggle with those transitions and it causes me to think about it. More and more – maybe it’s just the beginning of a feeling that makes me have a sense of transitioning in my own life, where I’m at a point where I can look at things both backwards and forwards at the same time. I have so much behind me – thirty years of making music – but I still feel fairly young. There’s a huge future in front of me.

You’re very prolific, so it makes me imagine that you’re not a perfectionist? But are you ever truly satisfied, or is it more like that quote about writing never being finished, just abandoned?

I like completing a project. The feeling that I can wrap it up is very satisfying, no matter how long it takes. The whole period – from gestation to nurturing to performance and fine tuning can take years. The perfect example is my double violin concerto. It was eight years from the time I first thought of the piece until the recording came out. I had lots of time to tweak it, figure it out, improve it.

Usually I’m composing right through the recording period, often editing the piece even when I hear it being played in the studio. Most recently, I went beyond that, and I digitally edited out a section after it had been recorded, before it was released. So by the time it comes out on record, it’s exactly how I want it to be. That’s when you know it has my stamp of approval.

Do you ever miss session work or just jamming down at a folk festival?

I really don’t. It’s a great training ground, and a good social outlet, so I encourage other people to do it, but it’s not fun for me anymore. I have to find my own comfort zone and what’s fun for me now as jamming was in those days is rehearsing my new music. Spending a whole day rehearsing and tweaking my compositions would be the equivalent today of me jamming at a fiddle contest. Rehearsing for a sixteen-year-old probably isn’t fun, but for me now, if I had to jam all day at a folk festival, I’d be screaming, “Get me out of here.”

Very few musicians even attempt to do the kind of cross-pollination you do. Are you uniquely talented or qualified, or are others afraid to step out of their comfort zones?

That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’m uniquely talented as a player, but I probably am as a creative force in the string music world. Things that occur to me probably don’t come up for others, and I have a career developed that allows me to put them into practical use. There are many talented string players who need a repertoire, a blueprint, a pathway. Once that foundation is laid, it’s much easier to cultivate interest and catch them earlier in their training. That’s what my fiddle camps are designed to do. Just today the dean of Julliard agreed to bring my own string conference to the school. It’s phenomenal at this point in my career to put my ideas in a position to have some legs where other talented players can see the possibilities and be more inspired to follow suit.

“Appalachian Waltz” has become something of a standard, played at many weddings, and at the September 11 memorial. Are you happy that it’s become what you are best known for?

I’m thrilled. I really feel badly for people who get very well known for a song they don’t like much. Think of Bobby McFerrin and “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” He refused to perform it. I’ve been very lucky. I’ll be playing “Appalachian Waltz” to the end of my days because I just love it.

Around Town

The new Santa Barbara Bowl season is upon us, and with a large part of the dates already announced, it looks like a truly diverse slate of concerts. Country holdout Brad Paisley – who has maintained a twangin’ sense of traditionalism in the face of Nashville’s bland pop onslaught – kicks things off on May 19, followed on June 5 by Ashlee Simpson. And while we don’t really care whether the teen pop sensation lip synchs her way through the whole concert or actually signs a few notes live, it’s worth showing up to hear the opening act. The Veronicas are Aussie identical 21-year-old twin sisters who proffer infectious tunes sporting more hooks than a baseball manager with a tired bullpen and they actually not only sang but co-wrote all 12 tunes on their debut album, “The Secret Life Of…”

Looking ahead, there’s a tasty double bill of Fiona Apple and Damien Rice (with special guest David Garza) on June 24, an evening of duets from Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris – who also have a brilliant new album together that just came out – on June 29, and the Santa Barbara debut of young Great American Songbook crooner Michael Buble on July 21, while classic rock lovers will appreciate Chicago with Huey Lewis & the News on June 10, Linda Ronstadt on July 14 and Carlos Santana on August 1-2. Secure your ducats now.

Ay yi yi, SOhO is bringing in some fine acts to the upgraded no-longer-so-little nightclub. The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash return with tuneful alt-country and Cam Penner in tow as opening act on May 18, and gritty acoustic wunderkind guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps does an early show on May 20. SOhO veterans guitarist Charlie Hunter and saxist Skerik have teamed up with percussionist Bobby Previte, Sex Mob trumpeter Steven Bernstein and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore to put together The Coalition of the Willing, dubbed a super bar band that visits the club on May 23. The bluegrass-and-beyond Hot Buttered Rum String Band returns on May 27. But the can’t miss date is May 24, which boasts a CD-release show from Tim Easton and the Santa Barbara club debut of Garrison Starr, the erstwhile singer-songwriter whose 10-year-old debut “Eighteen Over Me” plays as strong as ever, but pales in comparison to the new “The Sound of You and Me,” an organic, deeply affecting disc that chronicles the emotions of breakup with gorgeous songs beautifully sung.