So what is the difference between a violin and a fiddle? As the composer of two popular fiddle concertos for orchestra and a performer lauded for his unique instrumental voice, violinist Mark O’Connor must get asked that question constantly. To save a little time, here’s the short answer: fiddling is just a folk-based approach to playing the same instrument. Itzhak Perlman is a violinist; Johnny from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was a fiddler.
O’Connor is right at home playing everything from jazz to bluegrass to classical, so he gets to be both. The 41-year-old Seattle native hit the road—on guitar—with jazz mandolinist David Grisman and French jazz legend Stephane Grappelli when he was only 17 years old. His Fiddle Concerto No. 1, which he performed with the Missoula Symphony in 1998, is one of the most frequently played compositions in modern classical music. O’ Connor will be back in town this week to perform a second concerto, Fanfare for the Volunteer, commissioned for Tennessee’s bicentennial celebrations in 1996.
What was it like playing with Stephane Grappelli?
It wasn’t until the first rehearsal with Stephane that he discovered I played violin. One of the band members told him, and he immediately made me go get the instrument out of my car and play for him. I was scared to death. I was already nervous enough with my role as guitarist, let alone playing for my hero the first day. But everything worked out. He loved what he heard, and right at that moment he asked me to play a duet with him at each concert. One of the bigger days of my life and my music career. I did a lengthy tour with him that year and another one the next year, so over that time he really became a huge mentor for me.
As a largely self-taught musician....
I don’t know if I was largely self-taught. That’s a misconception. I started taking [guitar] lessons when I was five. When I started the violin at 11, I kept up the guitar as well, so I was taking three or four lessons a week for years. I think when people realize that I went right on the road when I was 17 and didn’t attend a music school, they somehow think I’m self-taught. But I was already good enough at 17 to be playing with Stephane Grappelli, and that was largely a result of all my training.
Have you ever encountered dismissive attitudes from musicians or composers who felt you were not properly accredited to play with them or perform music by them? Because you didn’t go to music school?
Well, I guess first of all they would have to know that I didn’t go to music school, which isn’t common knowledge...
Isn’t it? “Largely self-taught” was all over the materials in your press release...
I don’t think so. I’m sure if you interviewed most musicians who knew about me, it wouldn’t be automatic that I didn’t go to music school. No one’s ever asked me in a hostile way, “If you didn’t go to music school then why am I playing with you?”
It seems like at some point someone would have been like, ‘Oh, this guy...”
Well, I get some of that, especially now that I’m more widely known. The higher you go in the music business, the more people will try to cut you down. A great percentage of people love to see you succeed, but there’s always a percentage who don’t feel like you deserve it. And I think you can find that any in line of work. You know, “Why does he get to design that building? He’s only designed houses!” For instance, speaking of jazz, my next album is coming out in February— really, the first jazz release on a major label that I’ve ever had—and Wynton Marsalis is on the album. A lot of people are going to go, “Hey, how come this guy, who has never recorded a full jazz record ever, gets to play with Wynton Marsalis the first time?”
Well, he is probably the most famous living jazz musician, the face of jazz for a lot of people since the Ken Burns series...
Yeah, so a naysayer would probably think that I should have gotten to play with a lesser-known trumpet player and worked my way up to Wynton Marsalis. Maybe in some ways those people are right, but it’s not for me to get bogged down in that. I just follow my heart. He’s a good friend of mine, by the way. Maybe the reason he played with me is because we’re good friends, and maybe the naysayer doesn’t know that we’re just good pals and wanted to record together.
In the words of The New York Times, your “trajectory [is] unfinished.” Do you envision goals and places you still want to go musically, or do you just kind of find yourself doing them?
In following my instinct and my heart and letting my talent flow naturally, I think I find myself in the trajectory. If somebody would have said even four years ago that I would have been making a full-scale jazz recording with Wynton Marsalis, I would have said no, no, that’s not in my future. On the other hand, if someone would have told me 15 years ago that I’d be writing concertos and performing them with orchestra, I never would have believed them, either. None of this was intentionally planned. I’ve always wanted to be true to myself and go project by project and thought that if I get an idea then I should follow it. That’s been the secret of my success.