This past Saturday, October 22, SUNY Oneonta was treated to a concert of professionally performed orchestral music, featuring Grammy award-winning violinist Mark O’Connor with the Catskill Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Located in the Dewar Arena of the Alumni Field House, this concert was free to students and $35 for the general public; the program was a celebration of American folk music, with two classical suites written by American composers and two pieces composed by O’Connor.
The first piece performed was a suite by the name of “American Salute” by American composer Morton Gould. Gould, now deceased, was a 20th century composer who has written more than 1,000 works for radio, television, film and for Broadway, ballet performance and orchestra. “American Salute” includes development of the theme from the American folk song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and was performed flawlessly by the orchestra.
The second suite on the program was “Appalachian Spring” by another American composer, Aaron Copland. The suite was derived from Copland’s ballet score, and follows a story line about an Appalachian wedding, combining the joy of the wedding with the piety of Appalachian rural societies. The theme from an old Shaker melody is incorporated with five variations, and may be recognized by its more common use in a Christian hymn, “Lord of the Dance.”
O’Connor was featured as a soloist in the second half of the program, as the orchestra performed his Fiddle Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Having studied traditional American and European fiddle music since he was very young, O’Connor had won virtually every major national title by the age of 14. Two of his self-composed pieces were played Saturday night, but the Fiddle Concerto was the main source of excitement. O’Connor took a moment to speak to the audience between pieces, describing the concerto as his “version of how American folk music developed in the United States,” drawing on “the jigs and reels of my own ancestry, Ireland… The jigs turn into ragtime, the reels turn into blues, then swingin’ pop.” The music was nothing short of phenomenal, with O’Connor improvising as he pleased at each cadenza, or the moment towards the climax of a movement where the soloist plays several measures alone. His tone was akin to the sound of resonating glass, and the audience remained in perfect and reverent silence as his fingers flew across the neck of the violin, seemingly bowing over a million notes per movement.
Several professors in Oneonta’s music department have been members of the CSO for many years now, including Dr. Janet Nepkie, Dr. Julie Licata, Rich Mollin, Kim Paterson, Rene Prins, Ben Aldridge and Robin Seletsky. Dr. Nepkie spoke of what it was like to work with O’Connor, saying he “showed great respect for all musicians on stage and for the conductor, Charles Schneider — not all guest artists do that.” She also remarked upon O’Connor’s “extraordinary technical ability” and said that it was “a time of serious concentration on the orchestra’s part and trust in Mr. Schneider” that kept everyone on point. The CSO also has many student members, including cellist Amy Pierce from Hartwick, who said that O’Connor’s pieces were so difficult that it was like “playing the violin on the cello.”
We can look forward to more amazing performances by the CSO and guest soloists: a concert on Saturday, December 10 in the Hunt Union Ballroom will feature violinist Michael Emery as soloist with an “All-Tchaikovsky” program, and a cabaret concert will be held on St. Patrick’s Day of 2012 in the Dewar Arena, celebrating the holiday with Irish folk music and traditional American folk music.