Wednesday, November 6, 2013


Cleveland Museum of Art
October 30
November 1

Forging new directions in American music.

One of the defining trends in music in recent years has been crossover – artists playing outside their genres, or teaming up with unlikely partners. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and classical singer Anne Sofie von Otter produced a memorable recording (Love Songs) in 2010, followed by a successful world tour together. Banjo superstar Béla Fleck has practically made a second career out of working with classical musicians, playing with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra on his latest release and currently touring with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

Even by those standards, last week’s concerts at the Cleveland Museum of Art were exceptional.

On Wednesday night American violinist and composer Mark O’Connor, looking like a professor with his best students in tow, gave an engaging lesson in the history of American music. O’Connor is a gifted player who won national titles in fiddle, guitar and mandolin competitions as a teenager, and became a protégé of two string savants: Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson and French violinist Stephane Grappelli. While much of O’Connor’s subsequent work has been in the classical genre, he is also a noted authority on American idioms like bluegrass, jazz and country music.

O’Connor contends that all native American music sprang from the hoedown, which he used as a point of departure in introducing the members of his quartet, playing separate duets with each. Cellist Patrice Jackson joined him for Limerock, a traditional hoedown tune, followed by violist Gillian Gallagher for an original jig, and violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins for an original jazz/blues number. It was all Jackson and Gallagher could do to keep up with O’Connor’s lightning pace in the dances. Hall-Tompkins is a more assured performer who matched O’Connor’s solos and added a soulful flavor to her piece.

The full quartet came out for O’Connor’s String Quartet No. 2 “Bluegrass,” which is a remarkable work. It uses the vocabulary of bluegrass music in a classical structure to produce a true synthesis, a rare achievement across genres. The sound ranges from Béla Bartók to Bill Monroe, even hitting Monroe’s trademark “high lonesome” tone at times. The piece runs out of ideas in the final movement, but the first three are dazzling, demanding a hybrid (and complicated) style of playing that the quartet handled with aplomb.

O’Connor opened the second half with a solo improv that demonstrated a range of techniques and his complete mastery of his instrument, then brought the group out for his String Quartet No. 3 “Old Time.” More sophisticated than No. 2, the piece was reminiscent of David Grisman’s brand of progressive bluegrass, though more intricate, with a minimalist Philip Glass-style finish. An encore of O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz put a spirited finish on a very satisfying blend of entertainment and erudition.

Leading a Balkan tour.
Two nights later, Jordi Savall, the Spanish musicologist and viola da gamba player who continues to redefine European early music, brought his Hésperion XXI ensemble to CMA for a program exploring the roots of Balkan music. Savall crosses countries and eras rather than musical genres. But like O’Connor, he combines virtuoso playing skills with outstanding scholarship, and packages it all in enchanting, accessible performances.

This one used the cycles of life, both individually and seasonally, as a framework for selections ranging from a Bulgarian lullaby to Greek dances. Exotic yet simple in form, the music had a marked Mideastern flavor, featuring traditional instruments like a duduk, qanun, santur and kaval played by specialists from the instruments’ native countries. A group of five vocalists took turns singing solo, or in duets or ensembles. Like the musicians, each of them brought native knowledge and nuances to the songs, with Greek singer Irini Derebei showing particularly fine range and emotion.

Nearly all the music came at a slow, steady tempo, which dragged after a while, at least to Western ears. The songs also began to sound the same, picking up personality mostly in the vocals. Still, the ensemble was able to imbue them with color and feeling, especially in the players’ solos. And the musical tour of the Balkans before that term became a catchword for fragmentation and strife was fascinating.

Performances of this caliber don’t come through town very often, much less two in three nights. It’s edifying and comforting to know that while the museum director’s abrupt resignation dominates the daily headlines, CMA’s fine musical programming marches on.

For more on Mark O’Connor:

For more on Jordi Savall:

O'Connor quartet photo by Lucian Bartosik.

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