DON'T try to pin Mark O'Connor down. The American country fiddler and recording artist turned concert violinist, composer, arranger and educator defies categorization. Modern-day violin Renaissance man may be the most accurate moniker. Whatever you decide to call him, he was the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's guest artist for their season opener Saturday night.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/9/2010 (3817 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

DON'T try to pin Mark O'Connor down. The American country fiddler and recording artist turned concert violinist, composer, arranger and educator defies categorization. Modern-day violin Renaissance man may be the most accurate moniker. Whatever you decide to call him, he was the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's guest artist for their season opener Saturday night.

Not afraid to let his country roots show, O'Connor, (sans cowboy hat) gave an astounding performance of his jazzy, bluesy Double Violin Concerto paired with Associate Concertmaster Karl Stobbe. We got a taste of everything in this work, with first movement, Swing, providing a definite twang, wildly syncopated -- a style that challenged the violin section. They hung on as if their lives depended on it.

O'Connor and Stobbe were duelling violins. Stobbe more than held his own, answering back with assuredness, signature musicality and solid technique. O'Connor has a decidedly grittier tone and deceptively relaxed demeanour. He looked amazingly laid back as he whipped off hundreds of bent notes at breakneck speed.

Conductor Alexander Mickelthwate also seemed at home in this one-of-a-kind work, maintaining good control of the frenetic demands of the orchestration. Special mention to the bass section that provided some sensuously bluesy backup.

This foray into the indefinable was a bit of a gamble for the WSO but was a hit with the audience who jumped to their feet with shouts of "bravo!"

The pièce de résistance of the evening came after intermission. Mahler's Symphony No. 1 (Titan) is a masterpiece of melody and emotion -- and Mickelthwate and the WSO did it proud. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Mahler's death and it was clear from the outset that the maestro has a special affinity for this work. He conducted with refreshing joy and inspiration.

The result was a performance full of buoyancy, lovely string phrasing, drama and passion to spare. The entire ensemble played with total commitment. All the requisite pomp and heartiness shone through, with superb highlights from the winds and a suitably funereal third movement with the well known canonic strains of a minor key Frère Jacques.

And while at press time, the WSO was partway through this work, the quality of this performance was undeniable.

This concert repeats tonight then heads to Brandon tomorrow.

gwenda.nemerofsky@shaw.ca