The Kennedy Center

Double Concerto for Two Violins

About the Work

Mark O'Connor Composer: Mark O'Connor
© Richard Freed

The Concerto was composed in 1997 and had its first performances in 2000, with the same soloists hard in the present concerts. The formal premiere, given at the Ravinia Festival on August 12, 2000, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, was actually preceded by a ?preview? performance three days earlier at the Cabrillo Music Festival in California, with Marin Alsop conducting. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts

In addition to the two solo violins, the score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns 2 trumpets, bass trumpet, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, and strings. Duration, 32 minutes.


Mark O'Connor was in the Washington area three months ago, not as a concert violinist and composer but as a jazz fiddler, performing with his Hot Swing Trio at Strathmore Hall in Bethesda in a program given as a tribute to the memory of Stéphane Grappelli, the legendary French jazz fiddler who performed with the guitarist Django Reinhardt and played duets with the illustrious violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Back in February 2003, Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio performed at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall on the same night his Folk Mass, an a cappella work commissioned by Gloria Dei Cantores, was introduced in the same city at St. Thomas's Church.

Grappelli was one of the musicians Mr. O'Connor saw and heard in his formative years, and he not only got to know him but actually toured with him. Now, while carrying on and extending the Grappelli-Reinhardt legacy with his trio companions the guitarist Frank Vignola and bassist Jon Burr, he also performs regularly with such classical luminaries as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonneberg, and the composer-conductors Tan Dun and John Williams. The Sony recording ?Appalachia Waltz,? which Mr. O'Connor made with Yo-Yo Ma and the bassist Edgar Meyer, made ?crossover? history. As a composer, Mr. O'Connor has received commissions from such respected institutions as the International Bach Academy, the McKim Fund of the Library of Congress, and the aforementioned Gloria Dei Cantores. His Fiddle Concerto No. 1 has received more than 150 performances. His orchestral work The American Seasons: Seasons of American Life, introduced in April 2000, was greeted as a masterwork.

Mr. O'Connor has received honorary degrees and other honors for his work, and he devotes a good deal of time to master classes and symposia at major schools and conservatories. He founded the Mark O'Connor Fiddle Camp near Nashville, and the Mark O'Connor Strings Conference near his base in San Diego, both of which enterprises attract prestigious faculty and participating students from all over the world.

More about Mr. O'Connor will be found in the artist biography on page xx. Regarding the work at hand, the composer has kindly provided the following note of his own.


The Double Violin Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra, composed in 1997, is my third symphonic concerto for violin. It follows the Fiddle Concerto (1992-93) and Three Pieces for Violin and Orchestra ( Fanfares for the Volunteer ) from 1995-96. Other than the obvious difference of having two violins featured in this concerto, I also make a stylistic departure from the first two pieces. Where I previously concentrated on bringing folk-fiddling traditions of America and Ireland to a symphonic setting, here I utilize some of the most important musical inspirations I absorbed as a child?blues and jazz.

I had been playing the fiddle for seven months when I entered my first contest at the age of eleven. For the tunes of choice in the contest rounds, I was the only contestant who routinely chose to play the blues. By the time I was 13 I was quoting the solos of the jazz greats Stéphane Grappelli and Joe Venuti in my jams with other musicians. Grappelli was later to become my most significant mentor when I began touring with him in 1979.

In this concerto, I wanted to concentrate on swing rhythms in the outer movements. For this I employed canonic writing, in both the solo parts and the orchestration, to emphasize the swing feel. The accents and melodic phrasing within the canon bring out the syncopation, an essential element in achieving the feel of jazz and swing. In some cases the swing rhythms are the result of implication rather than performance. In the case of the two violins, how the parts fit together; in the case of the orchestra, how the layers of parts in fugue-like configurations all create rhythmic pulses in the music. My method of creating canonic syncopation is a unique and possibly even a new idea for orchestration. Rather than using vertical writing as has been commonly used in orchestral jazz, I use an almost completely linear composition technique in the first and third movements.

A refrain can be heard again and again throughout the three movements, linking them melodically, though the refrain is delivered contrarily in the three corresponding tempos and rhythms. The nine-note motif stated once and immediately repeated an octave lower is the germ phrase of the first movement, and then becomes an introduction, interlude and ending for the second movement. Finally, the refrain is used as a subordinate counterpoint theme in the last movement.

With the slow theme of the second movement, I wanted to conjure a nostalgic, big-band ambiance?the feeling of midnight on the dance floor. The two violins speak to each other alternately in classical and bluesy melodic language.

The two-violin cadenza in the first movement is a duel?in jazz terms, a ?cutting? contest. The violins begin by trading long passages that get incrementally shorter. Each attempts to outdo the other until there is nothing more to do but join forces. Each plays over the top of the other in a furious jazzy barrage. In the third movement, each violinist takes a cadenza. The first soloist interprets the music in a melodic, romantic and classically modern voice. The second soloist musically ?struts? alongside a walking bass line in the truest of jazz solo traditions?improvisation.

Mark O'Connor