Album review: Mark O’Connor conducts a fiddle-music clinic on ‘American Classics’

Mark O’Connor
“American Classics”
OMAC

It’s probably safe to say that this album won’t appear on many year-end best of 2012 lists, likely because it’s really a kind of teaching tool: a presentation of the pieces that Mark O’Connor included in his fiddle method books.

O’Connor is interested in building a sound fiddle-teaching method based in the cadences and tunes of American music, and this album is ancillary to that project. And, yes, there are pieces like “Rubber Dolly Rag” that perhaps don’t bare repeated listening for those without an interest in the curriculum. Nevertheless, there are other pieces that are breathtaking, such as, believe it or not, “Old Folks at Home.”

But it seems that there is something else going on here as well. It’s as if O’Connor is taking a look back at the American canon of fiddle music in order to provide some new answers to an eternal question: “What is American music?”

His answer, as the selections here make clear, is that just like America itself, it’s varied, conflicted, important and worthy of our respect. “Hava Nagila” sits alongside “Congress Hoedown” and “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down.” There’s something powerful in that. All the pieces are played with grace, poise and reverence, no matter that many of the pieces here are the very definition of chestnuts — songs that have been played seemingly to death and which are no longer seriously considered part of the popular repertoire.

O’Connor reminds us that these are indeed songs to be taken seriously, even if they are part of his curriculum. This recording in particular shows us that all can be played as performance pieces, and that all aren’t to be considered childish or rudimentary — even if they work as teaching tools for the young and for beginning fiddlers.

But the bottom line is this: Even if you have no knowledge or care for what O’Connor is doing with his fiddle method, this is simply a beautiful recording of — without a doubt — the best fiddler alive today, and by playing simpler pieces, we see better perhaps the depth of his skill and interpretation. This recording is about the exact opposite of what O’Connor did on “Midnight on the Water,” which can be a difficult album to crack, intellectually, as much as it is a technical tour de force. In contrast, with “American Classics” he’s offered a great resource for a young student, and, just as significantly, it’s deceptively grand for a mature listener.

The last track is a live one taken from an episode of the public radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” In introducing the song “America the Beautiful,” Garrison Keillor says, “Here’s a tune you all know, but you’ve never heard it played the way it’s played here by Mr. Mark O’Connor.” High praise, and true, and something that could be said for each one of these American classics.

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