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Friday, March 24, 2006 | Editor’s Note: Voice of San Diego has been attempting to give theater patrons the opportunity to provide their own reviews of shows. When you see “For the Heroes,” e-mail us at

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, fiddler and composer Mark O’Connor was about to embark on a 30-city tour. Although events were being canceled or postponed across the country, not one of O’Connor’s musicians walked away. Flights were spotty, however, so O’Connor put himself and everyone else on a rented bus. From that vantage point, O’Connor saw the American heartland in crisis.

“The malls were like ghost towns,” he said in a phone interview recently.

The tour took him back to New York for a concert at Lincoln Center, where the audience included a number of the city’s firefighters. After the performance, they took him to a pub, and O’Connor listened to their stories.

During the memorable tour, O’Connor began to write “For the Heroes,” a double concerto for violin, cello and orchestra that will receive its premiere with the San Diego Symphony on Mar. 30 and Apr. 1. O’Connor and cellist Natalie Haas will be the soloists, and guest conductor William Eddins will direct the all-American music program.

“For the Heroes” has another connection to Sept. 11. In the weeks after the attack, Carnegie Hall’s management sponsored a concert of remembrance for a New York gripped in grief. Yo-Yo Ma opened the concert with O’Connor’s “Appalachia Waltz,” a moving, healing work rooted in American folk music.

O’Connor said that “For the Heroes,” has similar roots. The writing he did for cello in “Appalachia Waltz” directs the nature of the music in the work, with new material from folk idioms and old-time rhythms. O’Connor described the second movement as “one of the most majestic pieces I’ve written.”

Our perspective on Sept. 11 has changed in the past five years. Time has passed, plans for a memorial at the site have bogged down, and the war in Iraq has turned sour. Still, O’Connor said, “I strove to create truly heroic overtones to reflect the times.”

At the same time, “For the Heroes” reflects “the real singing quality and bright cheeriness of old-time fiddling,” he said. Cheeriness seems out of place for such a tragic time, but O’Connor said the concerto is not a commemoration of Sept. 11.

Rather, “For the Heroes” is “music inspired by the optimism of the heroes in the aftermath of the event.”

The heroes O’Connor had in mind in this work are not only the firefighters and other rescue personnel but also ordinary people like teachers and parents, who stepped up to help communities heal, to make people feel whole again. Among them were the musicians who continued the tour. “Musicians are interesting. They’re often among the first people to respond to catastrophic events, ” he said.

Drawing on his roots in country music and jazz, O’Connor is composing and performing music that is unmistakably American in its energy and its optimism. O’Connor has described it as a hybrid style that takes the rhythmic drive of folk music and puts its excitement and energy and excitement into more refined – classical – forms.

The same approach informs “For the Heroes,” O’Connor said. “You can play rhythm and grooves in these instruments, so why omit that from the instrument’s range? Some of the composers working now using rhythms from rock and pop culture. I’m going back hundreds of years and towing along with me the tradition of fiddling that somehow never wound its way into the classical setting.”

O’Connor personifies why we should dispense with music categories. Now 44, he was a contest-winning 14-year-old fiddler in his home state of Washington, and the Country Music Association named him Musician of the Year for six years in a row.

He toured with the great jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli, at the age of 18, and was performing with fine-arts musicians by 1990. That year, he and superstar Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg premiered his Double Concerto for Two Violins with the Chicago Symphony. Salerno-Sonnenberg wrote that O’Connor showed up at one of her concerts with the Chicago Symphony. She couldn’t figure out what a great fiddler like him wanted with a “classical” musician, but she didn’t hesitate when he invited her to play the Double Concerto with him.

O’Connor wrote his first fiddle concerto as an exercise, never expecting to perform it. A booking agent found a commission for it from the Santa Fe Symphony, which premiered it in 1993. In 1997, he collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, James Taylor and O’Connor to record the score for the PBS series, “Liberty!”

Then in 2000, with Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer, he moved more prominently into public view with “Appalachia Waltz,” his arrangements of American folk tunes. The CD broke into the pop charts, and the three followed up with “Appalachian Journey.” Last summer, O’Connor’s second string quartet, “Bluegrass” premiered at La Jolla’s Summerfest. (O’Connor lived in San Diego for some years before moving to New York City.) The title is somewhat misleading, because while it is rooted in the driving rhythms and yearnings of blues and gospel, it leaps into complexity and modernism. His orchestral work has grander themes, and ideas take place over a longer period of time.

“When you have that many musicians on stage, you want to feature music that draws sensibility out of the music,” he said.

Most recently, he has been performing with his piano trio, Edgeffect,. Last week, he premiered his newest piece, “Strange Rims,” at Bargemusic in Brooklyn. While it retains what O’Connor calls “Americana,” it is also intense and modern, like last summer’s string quartet. “It’s the hardest, the most difficult piece I’ve ever written.”

Whether he is blurring genre distinctions or persisting in optimism in the face of tragedy, O’Connor is always breaking out of boxes. This drives marketing execs looking for niche audiences crazy. He said that things are getting better, however. Recently, EMI and SONY had a bidding war for a recording of “Poets and Prophets,” which he wrote for the Eroica Trio, three strikingly beautiful women who have been called “classical babes.” (EMI won.)

“The idea of American written music based in Americana is something that is starting to be attraction to business and industry people. This is a really, really good time for people like me,” O’Connor said. For audiences too.

CONCERT INFORMATION

William Eddins, guest conductor

Mark O’Connor, Violin and Composer

Natalie Haas, Cello

Please note that the two programs differ in length and program selections.

Thursday, March 30

Patrons’ social hour; light fare and refreshments in Symphony Hall lobby: 6-7 p.m.; concert begins: 7:30 p.m. Mark O’Connor: For The Heroes [World Premiere]; Aaron Copland, Rodeo; Leonard Bernstein, Three Dance Episodes From On The Town

Program is the same as Thursday’s plus Aaron Copland, Three Latin-American Sketches

I recently attended the March 30 Concert Lite series that the SD Symphony sponsored featuring among other things the world premiere of “For the Heroes”.

I thought the piece had no focus, no motif and went nowhere. It obviously was a showcase for the considerable talents of the violinist and cellist and must have been rewarding and fun for them to play.

However, I found the listening nearly unbearable as my ear searched for some sort of message or theme. I was a bit hopeful as the third movement started, but quickly was disappointed as it, too, lost any focal point. Fortunately, Conductor William Eddins redeemed the evening by finishing with 3 exhiliarating Bernstein dance numbers. That’s my 2 cents worth.

Lori Braatz, San Diego

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