Unlikely, yet surprisingly compatible bedfellows, the musical universes of bluegrass and classical collide this weekend in the unique concert experience Beethoven and Bluegrass, presented by the Emory Chamber Music Society. At Emory’s Schwartz Center, the Chamber Music Society’s Vega String Quartet will perform Beethoven’s works alongside a program of original music by virtuoso fiddler Mark O’Connor. The genre-bending composer and fiddle player joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes along with Emory Chamber Music Society Ensemble director Will Ransom to talk about how they each came to love this special blend of styles, and what to expect at this weekend’s concert.
Ensemble Director Ransom had nothing but the highest praise for O’Connor’s music, saying, “I think of Mark as the bluegrass equivalent of George Gershwin, who was the perfect synthesis of jazz or popular music and classical… Mark’s doing the same kind of thing, with this extraordinary, truly American music of bluegrass, and taking it places it’s never gone before in the most wonderful ways.”
The international award-winning Vega String Quartet is Emory’s quartet-in-residence, who will open the evening with music composed for four strings by Beethoven. After that, O’Connor’s “String Quartet No. 2” highlights the evening, “a tremendously challenging work for musicians, but incredibly wonderful to listen to as well,” as Ransom put it. “Then in the second half, Mark and Maggie will do their thing, and they’ll all come together, the Vega and the O’Connors, for Mark’s incredible ‘Appalachia Waltz.’”
“I’m loving the idea that my music gets to be paired with Beethoven because Beethoven is one of my favorite composers and an inspiration for my own string quartet compositions,” said O’Connor. He described how, like Beethoven’s, his own compositions often develop recurring intervals or rhythmic motifs, creating dynamic journeys – in O’Connor’s case, leaning into the highly lyrical “blue note” expressions of bluegrass music.
“The other thing I was testing, and the string quartets really finalize this idea, is that no matter what I’ve written or played, people will always find a connection to Americana,” said O’Connor. “I really enjoy pushing the envelope to see how contemporary my compositions can get, but always [with] that really sturdy thread that runs through the music into fiddling, and American fiddling in particular.”
Indeed, the passages of strong classical harmony O’Connor composes rove their way into more contemporary, adventurous sounds, always flirting with the special swings and lilts of Appalachian folk melody. “My second quartet and also my third quartet uses a hoe-down as a finale, and I’m thinking about a hoe-down as the ultimate, centuries-old celebration that comes at the end of a hard day of work and labor in the fields,” said O’Connor.
Ransom chimed in, “And of course, most of the Bach suites end with a joyous dance as well; with a ‘gigue’, a jig.”
Mark’s wife Maggie O’Connor will perform in this weekend’s concert as well, an established and virtuosic fiddler in her own right. “We just love playing together,” said O’Connor. “It’s just amazing what we bring out in one another, and it is a very, very beautiful, comfortable and musical artistic collaboration…. In many ways I’m able to do in this duo setting with Maggie what I’ve always really enjoyed about being a soloist – is that I feel unencumbered, and I’m not closed into a particular direction, or style, or even instrument.”
“The single most exciting, absolutely thrilling concert I’ve ever heard in my life was Mark and his family band out in Juno, Alaska a couple of years ago… That evening still rings in my head,” said Ransom. “Just the extraordinary music-making and the extraordinary virtuosity at the same time, and the pure joy and love of music, and of giving that music to the audience that I felt that night – I’m just so psyched about this concert.”
Beethoven and Bluegrass will be performed this Saturday, Sept. 25 at Emory University’s Schwartz Performing Arts Center. The event is free with registration and sold out. More information is available on Emory’s website here. O’Connor is offering a free Master Class at 4 p.m. on Sept. 24 as well.