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Mark O'Connor: fiddler on the campus

Grammy Award-winning violinist and fiddler Mark O'Connor took time off from a busy schedule of touring and recording to spend March 1 to March 6 at UCLA, where he served an enthusiastic stint as inaugural artist-in-residence at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

The week included collaborations with faculty, teaching master classes with students, rehearsals of his own compositions, and a visit to a local high school, where he coached young string players.

Mark O'Connor and UCLA student.During a lecture about the development of jazz violin, O’Connor walked students through the history of modern American music by describing how each tradition had influenced his playing. Violin in hand throughout the lesson, he briefly discussed his interaction with a wide variety of genres, playing a composition in each style — moving from classical to jazz to blues to Dixieland to improvisation.

Jacqueline DjeDje, chair of the Department of Ethnomusicology and an expert in fiddling, explained the significance of the choice of O’Connor as the first artist-in-residence at the school: “Not only does Mark O’Connor have such diverse interests, but it’s particularly important that he plays a musical instrument that’ s global. In addition to its being used for various Western musical traditions, such as classical, jazz, and blues, it’s also a musical instrument that’s used in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

O’Connor refers to his unique style of playing and composition as “cross-pollination,” in which he takes the defining characteristics of one style — the syncopation of ragtime, for example — and adds them to a piece in a different style. The result is wholly original music with unequalled freshness and energy.

He explained that he had learned from his mentor, the great jazz violinist Stphane Grappelli, “to express his style, personality and individualism through music.”

While teaching a master class, O’Connor led a classroom of rapt students in listening to performances of his compositions, “Caprice for Violin” and a piano trio inspired by the life of Johnny Cash. He shared his insights as a composer and provided hands-on help with everything from finger positioning to timing.

O’Connor’s eclectic and accomplished career includes a Grammy award for “Appalachian Journey” in 2007 as best classical crossover album. He has also worked extensively with Yo-Yo Ma, who recorded O’Connor’s “Appalachia Waltz” and often performs O’Connor’s compositions at his own recitals.

O’Connor will be returning to campus in May to perform in concert and again June 29 - July 3 to run the Mark O’Connor String Institute at UCLA. Violinists, cellists, bassists and violists are invited to participate in the intensive week of string-playing. In addition to receiving instruction from O’Connor, participants will also work with master musicians from jazz, fiddling, klezmer and classical traditions. For information and to register, go to this website.
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