Mark O'Connor's 'An Appalachian Christmas'

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday December 20, 2016

All Classical Portland brought Mark O'Connor and The O'Connor Band to Portland for their annual Christmas concert, "An Appalachian Christmas," defying the terrible traffic and weather to perform holiday music and pieces from his new album. His band of exceptional musicians delivered his signature music with grace and style, each of the six members a precision instrument performing at their highest level.

O'Connor, known for virtuoso fiddle playing, for his body of Appalachian music, and for those catchy violin tunes used to teach young musicians, has built an astonishing band of high-caliber performers. By his side were Maggie O'Connor, his wife, also on violin, his son Forrest on mandolin, Kate Lee on vocals and violin, Joe Smart on guitar and Geoff Saunders on bass. The communication between the musicians was intimate, in glances and shared harmonies, rhythmic impulses and breaths so subtle it was like the group formed a single organism.

This is music that shares similarities with jazz; the rhythm section holding steady with the chord progressions and keeping beat, soloists creating the melody on top, and the individual instruments conducting conversations and creating a narrative. This could be simply a group of people sitting around riffing off each other but for the extreme skill demonstrated in their playing. Even without knowing the professional pedigrees, the audience is made breathless by the power of the music played for them.

When you collect multiple Grammy winner/former child prodigy/multi-instrumentalist virtuoso (Mark O'Connor), the National Flatpick Guitar Champion (guitarist Joe Smart), a Doctorate of Musical Arts candidate in Bass Performance (Geoff Saunders), a state and regional songwriting prodigy (Kate Lee), a violinist who holds a Masters of Music in violin performance from the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins (Maggie O'Connor), and Harvard-educated "late-bloomer" Tennessee's 2014 mandolin champion (Forrest O'Connor), there's a good likelihood that decent music will result.

But there's an intensity to this group's connection that's different from jazz, and compelling. Be it the speed of the notes or the complexity of the compositions and arrangements, or the magnificent focus of each performer, the resulting dynamic is irresistible.

The O'Connor Band played favorites from the album "An Appalachian Christmas," including the "Cherry Tree Carol," "Sleigh Ride," "Linus and Lucy," and a penetrating "Carol of the Bells" that caused the audience to whoop with glee.

On vocals, Kate Lee displayed powerful control of her pure and honest voice, soothing with "Slumber my Darling" (I prefer her version to the venerable Alison Krauss), and blowing the roof off the place with her effortless "Ruby, Are you Mad at Your Man?" from the new album, "Coming Home." And when he isn't busy making the mandolin dance with joy, Forrest O'Connor provides sturdy vocals on the title track from the album and others, his presence a jolt of electricity.

But the reason we were all there was Mark O'Connor, in all his lyrical perfection. There is no more aching line in contemporary American music than the melody in his Appalachia Waltz, and the joy of his mandolin duet with his son in Macedonia, a song Mark wrote years ago, was pure delight.

O'Connor is a composer and arranger of the highest order, creating intriguing harmonies and rhythms in recognizable folk music. He elevates a music with humble beginnings to impeccable elegance, creating a whole different category. While the instrumentation is traditional in country music, his deft treatment of the songs and choice of performers brings out unexpected elements.

He's more than a performer; he's a suitor to the music, to the instruments, a passionate devotee of traditional forms and tools, and his adoration is evident in every note he writes and every chord he plays.

Mark O'Connor has brought his Appalachian Christmas to Portland for the last six years, and I hope he comes again next year, so everyone can hear his remarkable music.

"An Appalachian Christmas" played through December 14 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, Portland, OR 97205. The concert was presented by All Classical Portland and sponsored by Bob's Red Mill. For more information about the venue, visit http://www.portland5.com/arlene-schnitzer-concert-hall or Allclassical.org. For information about Mark O'Connor, visit www.markoconnor.com or www.oconnormethod.com

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.