Mark and Maggie O’Connor bring a fiddle workshop and concert to Asheville

LIFE INFLUENCES ART: Acclaimed multigenre fiddlers Mark and Maggie O'Connor have built arrangements and workshops around their concept of violin duos. Photo by Jason Goodman

“In music of the 1700s, 1800s and the early part of the 20th century, the violinist or fiddler carried the weight of the group,” says virtuoso violinist Mark O’Connor. “Everybody else kept playing and just went with it. But as musical literature for bands became more sophisticated, the violin somehow lost some ground. So with our teaching, we double down on the role of accompaniment being significant.”

O’Connor and his wife, Maggie O’Connor — an acclaimed, conservatory-trained violinist herself — bring a workshop and concert to The Altamont Theatre on Saturday, June 18.

Mark has already had a long and illustrious career. His early teachers — “mentors, really,” he says — were bluegrass fiddler Benny Thomasson and legendary French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Mark toured and recorded with both, playing Carnegie Hall at age 17.

Mark went on to success in nearly every musical genre. He’s won two Grammy awards, has been named six times as the Country Music Association’s Musician of the Year, recorded and toured as a member of Atlanta-based jazz/rock group Dixie Dregs and sparred with Charlie Daniels on “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia,” a 1993 sequel to Daniels’ 1979 smash hit single. Mark has released more than 40 albums and was recently the featured American performer at a concert staged at the Berlin Konzerthaus. But these days, his primary focus is on education in the form of violin duos.

“I’ve been doing workshops for decades,” Mark says. “More recently, I’ve stepped up my educational output with the O’Connor Method.” That system employs what its creator describes as a balanced pedagogy. The O’Connor Method “connects creativity and technique for students much earlier in the methodology than traditional methods,” he says. “It creates an opportunity for a 21st-century musician and string player to have a full range of abilities, from playing by ear to reading music, from understanding chord changes to being able to play in the orchestra.”

Calling his method a more holistic means for learning the violin, Mark believes that “the best foot forward is to have an inclusive approach that supports the musician to address anything that’s in front of them.”

The Saturday workshop will be a mix of demonstration and hands-on learning; attendees are encouraged to bring their fiddles. “We incorporate some of our teaching philosophies and music, literature and techniques into the workshops,” Mark says, promising that “there’s something for everybody.”

The evening concert will feature a mix of Mark’s solo pieces and a selection of duos performed with Maggie, a graduate of the Peabody Institute, where she earned her master of violin degree.

“Maggie had grown up playing bluegrass and fiddle music,” Mark says, but her formal training didn’t satisfy her desire to explore those folk forms. So she rang up Mark and asked for a lesson. The night after her first instruction, she joined Mark onstage at a New York City gala. They quickly became inseparable, marrying in 2014.

A highlight of the O’Connors’ small, private outdoor wedding ceremony was a violin duo featuring the couple; it can be viewed on YouTube. “We didn’t film it on purpose,” Mark says. “But when we started playing, everybody’s cellphone went up into the air. We made that video from the different cellphone footage.”

The couple recently relocated from New York City to Western North Carolina. The move brought them closer to family and to the other members of the Nashville-based O’Connor Band with whom they record and tour. “I was looking for a change, especially from the city’s noise floor,” says Mark. “I wanted a quieter, more rural living environment. Coming back off the road, my senses were kind of calling for it.”

The O’Connor duos make effective use of the interplay between melodic and rhythmic playing, deftly switching the parts back and forth between the two fiddlers. “Two violins doing a whole concert? I wouldn’t have even have thought of it!” says Mark. “We started playing duos at workshops, and people started coming up to us and saying, ‘We’d like to see more of that.’ So we started doing a few bookings like that. It’s a really unique setting.”

WHO: O’Connor Method Workshop with Mark and Maggie O’Connor, and “American Classics” Concert
WHERE: The Altamont Theatre, 18 Church St. thealtamonttheatre.com
WHEN: Saturday, June 18. Workshop at noon, $20. Concert at 8 p.m., $30 advance/$32 day of show

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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