Mark O'Connor - bluegrass fiddler, classical violinist, idiosyncratic educator (more on that in a minute) - isn't one to undersell his accomplishments or abilities. His improvised violin concerto, which he'll perform Thursday at Clowes with the Butler Symphony Orchestra? "Nothing like it has ever been done before in the history of violin concertos."
Not that he's overselling himself. We can't find any record of another violin concerto that's fully improvised by a soloist playing with an orchestra working from a written score. But it's familiar enough territory for the genre-crossing O'Connor, whose work and practice argues for the relevance of American folk and pop traditions to classical and art music.
"I've been improvising since I was a little kid," O'Connor said of the concerto. "I feel completely comfortable playing the concerto, and in some ways I feel like I'm coming up with my best stuff on the spot. It's such a high level of performance for me."
Sure, there have been improv performances on any particular instrument, he says. But the difference with the concerto is that it's a composition, with a beginning, middle and end, and not just a performance.
"The orchestra itself carries a lot of the main themes, and is crucial to carrying out and sustaining the concerto form," which is, of course, a highly-codified orchestra form that dates from the late 17th century. "I'm making up every single note the lead line plays, though I'm not playing all the time; sometimes I'll rest for 40 measures. I can play acoustically and then, with the flip of a switch, all the sudden I'm electric. That was necessary because if it's truly improvised, I should be able to play any time I want to."
The piece is based thematically on the four essential elements (earth, water, air and fire), plus a mysterious fifth element, faith, coming in at the close. It all makes for a "nice arc," O'Connor said, starting from a beginning that has a "scorched earth, modal feeling," with more and more harmony added to the mix as the piece moves along.
But wait, there's more on the O'Connor front Thursday night. He supplied the soundtrack for a piece newly choreographed for the Butler Ballet by Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, former artistic director of the Luna Negra Dance Theater.
I put it to O'Connor that his improvised concerto could be a sort of capstone seminar for a student following the O'Connor Method, an educational approach that starts with folk music tunes instead of repetitive rudiments a la Suzuki. He laughed, but no. "The final essential element of the O'Connor method is that they have to write their own violin concerto," he said. "You'd not only have to improvise, but create your own platform; my instrumentation is drawn from the symphony orchestra, but your instrumentation would be different."
O'Connor thinks that Suzuki has compromised two generations of violinists, and that every instrument group but strings "has risen in terms of quality, quantity, creativity and presence in our culture" over those two generation. Guitar? Check. Percussion? Absolutely. Even piano, given that even non-musicians have a keyboards in their basements.
"Suzuki doubled down on the wrong aspects of the environment," O'Connor said. "Focusing on early technical training runs against all research; you don't want to give technical drills to a three-year-old! Everything's been about rote and mimic and repetition, but that's kind of backwards. When you're a young child is when you should be really creative. You're choosing your own colors and crayons - and that's what kids should be doing; they should be playing their own universes."
O'Connor managed to teach himself to be creative, to improvise, to embrace a wide range of sounds and traditions. But he's the exception that proves the rule. "My method is based on my experiences, but I had no methodology," he said. "You can't expect someone like me to pop out; I'm sort of a one in a million case. If you really want the new Mozarts and new Mendelssohns, then you have to address creativity - and we're not addressing creativity in string playing for the first time in the violin's history."
But what's a Suzuki-raised player to do? There are plenty, for sure, in this year's incarnation of the Butler Symphony Orchestra. "It's never too late to learn," O'Connor said. "If we can't get people 100 percent [in terms of the O'Connor Method], 50 or 25 is OK. All of those steps forward count; we don't need 100 percent of people who look and play just like me."
But there are a few who come close. Has O'Connor heard of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Ensemble-in-Residence Time for Three? It's a string trio that plays American folk musics with classical chops, much like the trio that O'Connor himself formed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer (the one that recorded Appalachian Waltz and Appalachian Journey.)
"Yeah, I know those guys," he said. "They grew up listening to my albums. It's a really good start, and it's proof that American classical music works with strings."