"The Improvised Violin Concerto"
It's utterly groundbreaking…a concerto like this is totally unplayable by the vast majority of conservatory grads.”
–Paul Haas (Conductor/Composer, Music Director of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, founder/Artistic Director of Sympho)
“Mark O’Connor has a unique compositional voice that honors and embraces a great American musical tradition, spanning everything from country fiddling to extraordinarily virtuosic, modern violin techniques.”
-Patrick Summers (Artistic and Music Director - Houston Grand Opera, Principal Guest Conductor - San Francisco Opera)
"One component of Mark O'Connor's extraordinary genius is his vision . Mark sees mountain peaks in the far distance, while most of us are still looking at our shoes. Mark saw something in the future which had never yet existed, and that was a composed violin concerto where the solo violin part would be completely improvised.”
–Matt Glaser (Artistic Director, American Roots Music Program, Berklee College of Music
“This Concerto is the very first such composition which requires the soloist to spontaneously create in real time. No such concept has heretofore seen the light of day. Ironically, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, to name a few legendary figures in the pantheon of classical composers, were violinists AND improvisers themselves. O’Connor’s seminal work revisits the concept of improvisation, not as a sidebar but as core to the business of making music…What Mark O’Connor has done is not just compose a stunningly beautiful and original work, he has also invited his colleagues in the violin world to reacquire something long lost but there for the taking. In so doing, he may have permanently changed the landscape for his magical instrument.”
-Larry J. Livingston (Chair, Department of Conducting, Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California
“For audiences and aspiring young musicians, hearing a completely improvised concerto is a unique and inspiring opportunity. It is a wonderful concept brilliantly executed by the gifted Mark O'Connor.”
-Marin Alsop (Conductor, Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Principal Conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra)
"The Improvised Violin Concerto by Mark O'Connor affords us the extraordinary opportunity to experience transformative creative genius…In this first-ever foray into a combined improvised and structured musical journey of epic proportions, guru Mark O'Connor shows us that he is the musical visionary of our generation, and of generations to come."
-Dr. Judith Lynn Stillman, concert pianist, BM, MM, DMA, The Juilliard School
Artist-in-Residence and Professor of Music, Rhode Island College
“As a formable American artist, I could not think of one person capable with Mr. O'Connor's artistry and mastering of the violin and improvising to achieve this important musical statement. He is the leader in challenging our antiquated pedagogy with a fresh and exciting performance that only Mark can do.”
–Mark Wood (Recording artist, performer, producer, inventor, Emmy-winning composer and music education advocate, Founder of Electrify Your Strings program)
"Combining innovation and originality in a violin concerto with the challenge of improvisation has never been accomplished before Mark O'Connor's "The Improvised Violin Concerto.”
-Peter M. Thall Author of What They'll Never Tell You About the Music Business: the Myths, the Secrets, the Lies (& a Few Truths) (Billboard Books: Random House 2006)
“A truly groundbreaking addition to today's virtuoso violinist's repertoire, Mark's "Improvised Violin Concerto" is the first of it's kind, calling the soloist to embrace spontaneity and tap into their own creativity in performance - an idea that pays homage to the great violin virtuosos of our past while looking ahead to a hopeful future in the music industry.”
-Hilary Castle BM Boston University/Royal College of Music, MM Mannes College of
Music, PSD Mannes College of Music. Private and group instructor at Turtle Bay Music School, New York City
“Since this brings up the fact that most classical performers are not trained in the art of improvisation, who other than Mr. O'Connor is out there who could do justice to his piece? Whether this is a challenge from the composer or a point he is making in order to create change in the training of our classical musicians is unknown.”
-David Frost (Grammy award winning Classical Music Producer, including Classical Producer of the Year)
"Mark O'Connor has been a beacon for creative string players, and is lighting the way once again, this time with his beautiful "Improvised Violin Concerto." This concerto, with its brilliant weaving together of written and improvised material, invites string students and teachers alike to move into a world where inspiration is as important as training, and music thrives both on and off the page. I'm sure Bach would have approved!”
-Melissa Howe PhD, Chair, String Department, Berklee College of Music"
“The Improvised Violin Concert is a remarkable and singular achievement by a remarkable and singular artist…every note of the violin part is improvised out of the orchestral background. You can't take your eyes and ears off of Mark as he literally creates the violin melodies and virtuosic passagework of an amazing concerto, in real time, right before your eyes.”
-Shelton G. Berg - Dean - Patricia L. Frost Professor of Music, Frost School of Music
University of Miami
"Mark O'Connor's 'The Improvised Violin Concerto' is a innovative way to approach the musical interaction between soloist and orchestra. It also requires a new set of skills that will encourage young virtuosos to develop high level improvisational skills. The string world welcomes this addition to the repertoire that supports one of our national standards for music education, improvisation."''
-Bob Phillips - President, American String Teachers Association
“Mark O’Connor’s "The Improvised Violin Concerto" is a phenomenon. An exciting and appealing concerto, with great rhythmic vitality and rich harmonic sonorities, it is one of a kind. It will prove to be a challenge for any top classical violinist to ever perform unless the current training for classical violinists will include more improvisation, arranging, and composition as well as jazz theory and American styles.”
-Igal Kesselman - Director, Lucy Moses School, Kaufman Center, New York, NY
'Mark O'Connor is a true American genius. He is bringing to our culture our music, and he's doing it in a way that celebrates both the tradition and beauty of our heritage with the pedagogy that can teach our string players how to play this music in a technically sound and healthy way, in addition to the obvious importance of American string music in the grand historical tradition. He is an absolutely ground breaking artist and his commitment to defining what American music is, is absolutely essential to defining what is unique about our culture and what we need to instill in every American musician who plays a string instrument. His contributions as an artist, teacher, composer, pedagogue are incalculable and will be remembered for ages to come in American music.'
-Dr. Robert Livingston Aldridge - Composer, Director of Music, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University
The Improvised Violin Concerto - Program Notes
The Improvised Violin Concerto unites two disciplines: symphonic composition and improvisational performance art. It is the first concerto to feature an entirely improvised solo part over a through-composed orchestral score.
The piece adheres to three basic principles:
First, the orchestra--a large body of musicians trained to play in perfect synchronization--must not improvise. I cannot envision designing a stable, long-form piece around orchestral improvisation. However, I do score ambient sounds and noise effects, which sound improvisational and thus serve as a link between the orchestra and the soloist.
Second, the violin part must be entirely improvised. Even if a small portion of the solo part were composed, the piece would not live up to its title. The violin must be unbridled, free to introduce its own ideas at any time. And these ideas, and every note therein, will be different in each performance.
Third, the orchestra must introduce and develop themes to provide form and logic. Its score must be essentially symphonic. This affords the violin the ultimate freedom to experiment with and respond to the themes and other musical materials.
To emphasize this sense of freedom, I allow for extreme dynamic variation in the solo part. With the aid of sound reinforcement (via P.A.) and effects pedals, the violin can negotiate even the loudest tutti sections punctuated by fortissimo brass. On the other hand, the violin has the right to remain silent in the softest moments.
To avoid excessive conflict between the violin and the upper-register orchestral instruments (e.g., trumpets, flutes, oboes), I assign much of the thematic material to lower-register instruments such as the bass clarinet, the English horn, the bassoon and the trombone.
At nearly 40 minutes in length, The Improvised Violin Concerto features the longest improvisation ever called for in a classical setting. To perform it well is a daunting task.
Given the length of the piece, I dedicate each of the five movements to basic, widely interpretable elements rather than specific thoughts or images. “Fire,” the first movement, is passionate, intense, and otherworldly--an excellent launching point. “Air,” the second movement, stirs up a new kind of energy that extinguishes the embers remaining from the first movement. The playful and jazzy third movement, “Water,” introduces the human condition. The fourth movement, “Earth,” invokes blues, rock and heavy metal to convey what I call the “salt of the Earth.” This movement represents the relationship between Earth and humanity.
The final movement manifests what I call the fifth element, “Faith.” It is an invention of humanity, a celebration of the human spirit. After a series of hymnic chord sequences, the movement proceeds through Southern Gospel refrains before morphing into Gospel hoedowns and Buzzard Lope dances. It culminates in a throw-down Jubilee.
The sheet music for the solo violin part contains chord symbols (BAug, Gmaj7, and so on) rather than notes. These chord symbols indicate the harmonies in the orchestra. Otherwise, the solo part contains standard types of information: time signatures, measure numbers, rehearsal letters, tempi, and descriptions of individual sections (like “Impending inferno” and “Evaporation”) that inform the soloist’s ideas and mood.
--Mark O'Connor, 2011
Notes on Musical Improvisation
Although it’s as old as the art of music, the singular art of improvisation confounds and intimidates even the best-educated and most successful classical musicians. Many believe improvisation to be spontaneous, boundless musical invention, which is entirely true only in an approach I have often embraced, namely “free improvisation.” In most circumstances, however, improvisation is not boundless but rather adheres to (or at least references) harmonic, metric, rhythmic and temporal guidelines.
Three levels of study define improvisation. First, discipline and years of practice are essential to conceiving of and structuring musical ideas and then learning how to musically transition from one idea to another. Second, an understanding of jazz theory, harmony, rhythm and meters is necessary. Third, an intimate knowledge of chord progressions for specific pieces is an absolute. Knowledge of and familiarity with these chord progressions, rather than mere awareness of them, allows the improviser to spend less time worrying about technical details and more time being creative.
Mastery over the Improvised Violin Concerto, then, is no mean feat. Unlike a bluegrass tune, which usually has three or four chords, or a jazz tune, which might have 10 or 20, the Improvised Violin Concerto has hundreds of chords and numerous meter changes over the course of a thousand measures. I am, to some degree, surprised that brilliant improvisers like Mozart, Liszt, Paganini and Mendelssohn did not tackle something like this.
In addition to encouraging classical musicians to become familiar with the pantheon of great American improvisers I have studied, I hope this piece goes a step further and inspires in those musicians a keener interest in improvisation.
--Mark O’Connor, 2011