Preview and review by David Royko, Chicago Tribune, March 31 & April 5, 2000
The Ma/Meyer/O'Connor trio performs 8:00 PM Monday at Symphony Center, 220 S.
Michigan Ave. $30/$65. 312-294-3000.
April 5, 2000
O'Connor, Ma and Meyer explore with abandon
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
In September 1986, at a festival in Louisville, Mark O'Connor, at 25
years old already an established musical sensation in bluegrass
circles, was hunched over so far that his head seemed close to grazing
the stage. As mandolinist Sam Bush bent over next to O'Connor,
exhorting him to keep going, the fiddler spun variation after
variation on "Molly and Tenbrooks," with notes flying from his
instrument at such speeds they became a blur.
In some ways, however, it was in the next afternoon's performance of
the languid "Kentucky Waltz," with guitarist Doc Watson, that
O'Connor's fiddling was most impressive. At a relaxed tempo, his tone
glowed and sang like no other bluegrass fiddler. It was an extension
of this side of O'Connor that listeners heard most in Symphony Center
Of course, O'Connor was not alone, but one-third of a trio that
included bassist Edgar Meyer and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Like O'Connor, Meyer has unique technical and musical gifts. His upper
register playing, approaching the range of a violin, as well as his
speed and dexterity, has raised the bar for bassists in the
classical--and any other--world.
Ma, the greatest cellist of his generation, is also a player almost
too good to be true. Possessing a willingness to try anything that
interests him, he brings humility, warmth, intelligence and gentle
humor to virtually everything he plays.
But perhaps because of the unusual way that O'Connor came from the
fiddle contests of his youth to the hallowed concert stages of his
maturity, his career is the most fascinating, and that journey is
reflected in the music he writes.
Based on the two most extended pieces the trio played Monday, "Vistas"
and "Poem for Carlita," it seems that O'Connor's composing has broken
through to a new, and deeper, level.
The shifting textures of the canonical "Vistas" took a relatively
simple and sweet theme and developed it in a manner as satisfying as
it was surprising, allowing O'Connor to blend his influences into a
wholly cohesive and personal statement. In particular, the pizzicato
section sounded like an odd but happy marriage between Ravel and
"Poem for Carlita" was even more affecting. Though completely tonal,
the harmonic profile of the yearning main theme brought to mind
Shostakovich's mid-to-late string quartets, in that the beauty was
laced with moments of uneasy tension.
The work has the potential to become a classic, especially if arranged
for a more typical ensemble, such as a string quartet.
Meyer's compositions served as a perfect foil for O'Connor's. In
particular, the bassist's beguiling "Indecision," where he
demonstrated his trademark slurs and bouncing, rubber-band rhythms,
allowed the trio to lock into a variety of jazzy patterns both
humorous and mildly menacing.
One of the most refreshing aspects of this trio's approach was that
they appeared to feel no need to prove anything.
However, in the second of three encores--in response to the standing
ovations of the sold-out house--the group finally tore into a fast
showpiece, not only bringing to mind the younger O'Connor of the
bluegrass festival circuit, but also suggesting how far he has come,
in that such moments are now relatively rare, and for that, even more
[Photo: Violinist Mark O'Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer and cellist Yo-Yo Maerform at Symphony Center Monday night. The trio is touring in support of its new CD, "Appalachian Journey."
Photo for the Tribune by Erik Unger.]