Mark O’Connor introduces a new American string symphony 

Mark O’Connor believes in American music. Throughout his career, the violinist has embraced classical tradition while working to create what he calls “a new American classical repertoire.”

This month, he makes his latest contribution to that repertoire with “Elevations,” a string symphony commissioned by the New Century Chamber Orchestra.  

He’s just put the finishing touches on the work, which will receive its world premiere by the ensemble in concerts this week under music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. (The program also includes works by Edward Elgar, Alfred Schnittke and Frank Bridge.)

O’Connor, who has been New Century’s featured composer this season, says the score evokes the “wide-open spaces” of the American West.

“It deals with three cultures in America: the European-American, African-American and Native American,” O’Connor explained in a recent call from New York. “Those are the three groups most responsible for creating American violin music.”

Composed in two movements, the score is based on a theme from an earlier O’Connor work titled “Vistas.” His idea for the symphony, he adds, was “to make a space where new forms of music can grow.”

Crossing musical boundaries is nothing new for O’Connor, who trained with folk fiddler Benny Thomasson and French jazz master Stephane Grappelli.

In recent years, he has collaborated with a long list of artists including Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Edgar Meyer and Salerno-Sonnenberg.  

Serving as New Century’s featured composer was a great experience, he says. The program was founded by Salerno-Sonnenberg to expand the chamber repertoire; composers William Bolcom and Clarice Assad held the post in previous seasons.

Salerno-Sonnenberg’s approach to new music is vital, says O’Connor: “She’s incredible.  Her support as a violin-playing colleague has been really wonderful. I had her in mind the whole time I was writing this piece. Her spirit, her drive — when you have a leader like that, the whole process of composing becomes more engaging.”

Along with composing and performing, O’Connor is a committed educator. While he won’t perform at this week’s concerts, he will participate in post-show Q&A sessions, and during the day will present the O’Connor Method Teaching Seminars at San Domenico School in San Anselmo. The seminars take an American classical approach to modern violin instruction, and he says they’re getting great results.

“It’s all American, using the great tradition of our own music,” he says. “There’s a feeling among young players, a desire to return to some kind of authenticity. The violin should be central to our American music-playing culture. We’ve finally put that into a teaching method of our own.”


New Century Chamber Orchestra

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $29 to $49
Contact: (415) 357-4400,
Note: Performances also are 8 p.m. Thursday at First Congregational Church, Berkeley; 8 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church, Palo Alto and 5 p.m. Sunday at Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, San Rafael.

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Georgia Rowe

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