Mark O'Connor Helps Launch American Roots Music Program

  From the left: Composer/fiddlevirtuoso Mark O'connor duels with student Jakub Trasak on the third movement of O'Connor's Double Violin Concerto.
  Phil Farnsworth

In December, students and faculty who specialize in traditional American music had a rare opportunity to learn from and perform alongside one of the contemporary legends of American music. During the week of December 7, 2009, world-renowned fiddle virtuoso and composer Mark O'Connor spent four days on campus working with students in preparation for a December 10 concert. The show, staged in the Berklee Performance Center, offered a showcase for O'Connor's matchless playing and compositions and for the announcement of a new educational initiative at the college.

Opening the evening, President Roger Brown, stated, "Stephen Foster moved from his native Pennsylvania to Cincinnati where he wrote "Oh Susanna," which became the anthem for the California Goldrush of 1849. Despite the value of the gold extracted from the hills of northern California, it does not compare with the mother lode of music that Foster tapped as the first professional songwriter of our country. And he was not the last to draw on the rich material of American music. Tonight we are honoring the history of American music with Mark O'Connor and announcing the launch of Berklee's American Roots Music Program."

Brown then introduced Matt Glaser, who led Berklee's String Department for 20 years and has recently been appointed artistic director of the roots music project. Glaser made a case for the importance of Berklee's roots initiative by quoting composer Béla Bartok who said, "Folk melodies are an embodiment of an artistic perfection of the highest order. In fact, they are models of the way in which a musical idea can be expressed with utmost perfection in terms of brevity of form and simplicity of means."

Glaser then brought out O'Connor, who has been a friend of Glaser for the past 34 years. The concert program featured numerous compositions by O'Connor and traditional American songs performed by various ensembles. The first number was an O'Connor trio arrangement of the song "Chief Sitting in the Rain," from his top-selling album Appalachia Waltz recorded with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer. Next, Associate Professor Eugene Friesen led the Berklee Jazz/World String Orchestra in Strings and Threads Suite with O'Connor soloing in a medley of traditional tunes accompanied in alternating fashion between the orchestra and a bluegrass ensemble made up of students and faculty members.

Throughout the concert, O'Connor gave plenty of room to student fiddlers, mandolinists, guitarists, and banjo players who traded choruses with him. The students displayed a depth of instrumental finesse and knowledge of Americana music that was truly astonishing. O'Connor's jazz-influenced Double Violin Concerto was the main attraction for the concert's second half. Assistant Professor Francisco Noya conducted the 66-member Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra in the three-movement work that spotlighted a different student violinist playing alongside O'Connor for each movement. Julgi Kang of South Korea rendered her part on "Swing," the first movement, expressively with a rich tone and phrasing. Sue Buzzard of Buffalo, NY played sweetly on the lyrical second movement titled "Midnight on the Dance Room Floor." Jakub Trasak (Czech Repbulic) flawlessly executed rapid-fire lines with O'Connor and his own cadenza on the fiery final movement "Dixieland."

The concert ended with a rollicking bluegrass jam that brought some 24 student musicians as well as faculty members, including Glaser, onto the stage with O'Connor.

The American Roots Music Project at Berklee will connect students, to the history and culture of American popular music that developed from gospel, country, folk, bluegrass, Cajun, polka, Tex-Mex, and at least a dozen other genres that are the roots of today's contemporary music. The aim of the American Roots Music Program is to ground and inform Berklee students about the rich traditions underlying today's music.

A distinguished board of advisors has been assembled to guide the new program. They include Darol Anger, Ray Benson, John Blake, Liz Carroll, Béla Fleck, David Grisman, Charlie Haden, Ricky Skagg, Andy Statman, Leo Kottke, and more. In the fall 2010 semester, Berklee will offer expanded roots music courses.