What's whiz fiddler Mark O'Connor pulling out of his bag of tricks these days?
Same stuff but different, which is to say something old, something new, something borrowed, something patently eccentric.But riveting, even to the uninitiated ear.
Utahns get a chance to hear it live next week when Grammy Award winner O'Connor brings his unmatched blend of classical, country, barn-stomp, jazz-flavored, concert hall music to Utah in two separate performances with the Utah Symphony, Aug. 11-12. (The Friday night appearance is at Abravanel Hall. Saturday's show is at Deer Valley's open-air amphitheater.)
Die-hard fiddle aficionados will remember O'Connor as the little kid from Seattle who emerged out of nowhere in 1973 to take second place in the 12-and-under category at the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest in Weiser, Idaho. That was just seven months after he picked up the instrument. In the ensuing years, O'Connor would return to Weiser to claim the grand championship repeatedly.
He retired from contest fiddling in 1984 to become a recording-session fiddler in Nashville, gaining acclaim in the process of accompanying at one time or another practically every country-music great of his time. Along the way he has released nine solo albums, ranging from country to fusion and now classical. Each has sold more than 200,000 copies.
O'Connor was last seen in Salt Lake in 1992 when he opened a Travis Tritt concert, stealing the show in the process with a brilliant 20-minute solo set composed mostly of his original works. In a series of many honors bestowed on him, O'Connor has won the Country Music Award for musician of the year four times in a row.
His appearance next week with the symphony is heralded by his latest record, "The Fiddle Concerto," which has debuted to warm reviews and offers a clue of what's in store for those who attend the Abravanel or Deer Valley appearances.
The album is what's come to be recognized as vintage O'Connor, mixing influences that are so diverse they're considered incompatible until you hear him bring them together.
In the record's liner notes O'Connor says it well enough, setting up the initial movement of "The Fiddle Concerto for Violin and Orchestra" (commissioned by the Santa Fe Symphony) - which makes up the bulk of the album - by noting that it somehow combines a waltz with a hoedown, the two genres he studied most as a child.
"Throughout the 18-minute movement, the solo fiddle interprets the themes by juxtaposing the rhythmic nature of fiddling with the romantic lyricism of classical in a journey to find a place in the middle where the fiddler meets the classical violin."
O'Connor says he seeks the "common thread" in these musically disparate worlds.
"The fiddler is one with the orchestra," he writes, "as this eccentric combination explores new musical frontiers."
It's a mix not just anybody could pull off and one symphonygoers aren't treated to every day.
Tickets to O'Connor's upcoming shows with the Utah Symphony are $10-$22 at Abravanel Hall, $16 and $32 at Deer Valley. Friday's concert at Abravanel Hall is at 8 p.m.; the Deer Valley performance is at 7:30. For more information, call 533-6683.