Sunday, 31 October 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee with Mark O’Connor

After last week’s singalong we return to the normal format today in which I bring you ten music videos I love and you get a big coffee, find a comfy seat, sit back, relax, listen and marvel, hopefully, at Mark’s talent and his music’s beauty. 

Today’s show features the phenomenal fiddler, violinist, guitarist, composer and music teacher Mark O’Connor.

OConnor 1

I hadn’t heard (of) Mark until early this year when I found him in the background of videos of some of the top bluegrass instrumentalists – Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Bela Fleck.  I thought he was a run-of-the-mill professional fiddler but I was SO wrong!

In fact, such is the magnificence of his music that, for only the second time, I put on an Extra show – find it here -  featuring Mark’s music.

Now make sure you’ve got your coffee and that you are comfy and the show – which is 50 minutes long - can start with the only vocal in the show – not Mark though.

Sally Ann                                                     with John Cowan

A lively and bouncy number which still shows off Mark’s skills. 


Mark came into this world in 1961 (5 August) in Seattle and soon his musical abilities were obvious. Wikipedia states:

At an early age Mark O'Connor was considered a child prodigy, his first instrument being the guitar. "I was a guitar player first, beginning around age 6." said O'Connor in a recent interview. "At age 11 I got really interested in bluegrass and country guitar, and I was able to really draw inspiration from all the great guitar players that were recording in that era; of course, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed, and Doc Watson and some of the bluegrass guitar players like Tony Rice, and Norman Blake."



Mark shows off a bit in this encore having played his Violin Concerto with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Fiddle Encore:  Impro / Devil’s Dream

Wow!  Sheer virtuosity.


More from Wikipedia now:

As a teenager he won national string instrument championships for his virtuoso playing of the guitar and mandolin as well as on the fiddle. His mentors include Texas old-time fiddler Benny Thomasson who taught O'Connor to fiddle as a teenager, French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli with whom O'Connor toured as a teenager and guitarist Chet Atkins.

Brilliant on three instruments: talent in bucket-loads and put to great use as you’ll see and hear later.

Imagine being good enough to tour with Stephane Grappelli when still a teenager?  What an education!



We continue with a great O’Connor composition and three great string players.

Emily’s Reel  with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer

I’ve listened to this so often, normally with my eyes closed -but not when driving - and still I am taken by the sound, the togetherness and the joy.


Another biography has this to say about Mark’s early career.

“At the time [1983] O'Connor arrived in Music City [Nashville] (the post-Urban Cowboy era), fiddle was hardly in vogue, and it took a couple of years for him to make his mark. Finally, in 1985 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band used him in their single "High Horse"; thanks to that work, O'Connor's phone number became a popular one with country record producers. Over the next five years he played on 450 albums, ……... Despite his success, O'Connor gave up session work to concentrate on his own solo career, increasingly rooted in the classical realm thanks to collaborators including Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, and Edgar Meyer.” 



O’Connor changes genre – to jazz this time -  as though there were no boundary: there isn’t  …. to him.  He talks about “crossing bridges” from one type of music to another and thus all are linked.

Sweet Suzanne          with John Patitucci and Julian Lage

If you like jazz then you will love this.  If you’re not a jazz lover you may still love this.   I love this!

Julian Lage, who features on this piece, was a soloist in the concert which Mark played with students from Berklee College of Music.  The entire concert is featured in my Extra show.


Mark is an American bluegrass, country and classical fiddler, composer and music teacher. O'Connor's music is wide-ranging, critically acclaimed, and he has received numerous awards for both his playing and his composition. [Wikipedia again]

The Country Music Association named Mark as their Musician of the Year for 6 years in a row  - 1991 to 1996.  I don’t know what happened thereafter: perhaps he wasn’t allowed to enter.



Lime Rock                                                   with Edgar Meyer

A duet to end all duets.  As I stumble my way through music – and YouTube – I keep having to remind myself how lucky I am to have found so many musicians of absolutely world-class.  Mark and Edward remind me of that now.


That’s half-time and so we’ll have short break to allow you stretch your legs and top up your coffee.  Don’t rush I’ll start when you return and, be assured, there’s much more brilliant playing.


Here we go again.



We start up again with Mark (the bearded one) outstanding on the guitar which was his first instrument but hand problems meant he had to give up on the instrument.  Here we see Mark with great blue-grass musicians.

Slopes                                                   Strength in Numbers

Strength in Numbers are:
Mark O’Connor (beard) – guitar;  Sam Bush  -  mandolin
Bela Fleck  -  banjo;  Jerry Douglas  - dobro
Edgar Meyer  -  double bass

What a guitarist!  One commenter on YouTube remarks on Jerry Douglas’ expressions while Mark is playing


Mark’s interests are so wide: folk, bluegrass, classical, jazz as well as arranging and composing.  I have read that his Fiddle Concerto is the most played concerto written in the last 50 years.

In addition to this concerto he has written six violin concertos, string quartets, string trios, choral works and solo unaccompanied works.  Later you’ll hear the 2nd movement from one of his string quartets.



Good old traditional fiddle-playing now in a performance reported to be at the 1991 Mountain View Arkansas Fiddle Contest.

Lady be Good

Can there be any better?


Mark is also a music teacher but no ordinary teacher.  For more than 16 years Mark has directed his String Camps through which many many children have passed.  Not content with this Mark has launched his own teaching method which is an immersive method – akin to the Suzuki method I think – which uses only American fiddle / violin music.



We move into classical music and I think you’ll just love this next video: the second movement of Mark’s Third String Quartet.

O’Connor: String Quartet No. 3 Movement 11

Mark O'Connor, Ida Kavafian, Paul Neubauer and Matt Haimovitz II

He is just as much at home here as in the fiddle contest. 

I have no idea about the background to this piece but there is no doubt – to me - that the initial harmony starts to disappear about 2m 54s, two violins are in opposition by 3m 35s and the last 90s feature powerful opposition. I’m probably all wrong and showing off my lack of knowledge but …. it’s what I feel.

Clearly, as a composer, Mark is top-notch.


Tulsa World – a newspaper I imagine - said this about one of Mark’s performances,

You spend the first few moments of a Mark O'Connor performance asking yourself, "How in the world does he DO that?"  After all, there's just one person on stage, holding one fiddle in his two hands.  No wires are visible, other than the four stretched tight over the body of the violin, no electronic crackle can be heard, hinting that there might be pre-recorded rigmarole going on.  And yet, you can't help but wonder from whence comes all that sound.  Maybe what's amazed you is the bagpipe-like sound that runs through "Song of the Liberty Bell," or the bird songs that rise up out of furious melodies of the "Call of the Mockingbird" section from "Fanfare for the Volunteer," or the way his fingers never seem to leave his hand – although that's the only way you can imagine he plays all those notes in his Caprice No.1 in A Major.  But such questions soon fade from mind as O'Connor keeps fiddling away, creating a whole new sort of music that melds country, classical, folk, jazz, and just about anything else he can think of.”



Only two tracks to go and this is the only one which is not a live performance.  Again an O’Connor composition and …. just listen.

Appalachia Waltz             with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer

Just under 6 minutes of understated brilliance.


During my current journey into music – since I started this show way back in December last year and “Music in the Morning” in March, I think – I have found musicians who were completely new to me and whose music captured me but I can say, without any hesitation, that Mark has been the most surprising.  I said earlier that I had assumed that he was a good professional fiddler who played with some excellent instrumentalists.  Little did I know that they were playing with a phenomenon.

Mark’s playing talent, the breadth of his musical interests, his composing brilliance and his desire to pass skills on to youngsters show him to be head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

I will continue to be on the look-out for his music.



There is nothing understated about this, our last, video which includes three separate tunes and it is a perfect way to sign off this show with the fabulous skills of Mark O’Connor.

Sweet Georgia Brown / Amazing Grace  /  Orange Blossom Special

Orange Blossom Special contains snippets from “Bonanza”, “Meet the Flintstones”, Bach’s “Partita in E” and Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite”.

[with The Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams]

Here for all to see and hear was Mark O’Connor musician extraordinary.  These 10 minutes show why he is held in such high regard but still I am amazed that he isn’t much better known. 

Thank you, Mark, for opening my ears to your brilliance.


I’m sorry to say that’s this week’s show is over but I’ll be here next week waiting for you to join me for another Sunday Morning Coffee.

See you soon.

Remember the Extra show here.


  1. WOW!!!

    I got no further than the first video and I was off into YouTube looking for John Cowan.
    Why do we not get to hear about people like him. Radio and TV and the music biz are all failing badly.
    How much more talent is hidden from view?

    I'll be back later for the rest of the show. :)

    if this is your way of giving up blogging, you should give up more often!

  2. I did the same with John Cowan!
    Hope you enjoy the rest of the show ... but I know you'll love Mark's music.