Mark O'ConnorAs I am realizing now that the conclusion of this year’s SummerFest with Seattle Symphony has arrived, I am left with a sense of awe and inspiration that we could bring this great festival to the Benaroya Hall stage this year with only months to plan.

I have played a lot of festivals throughout my 35 years of performing, but this festival was unique. We asked some of the world’s best artists from classical, jazz and folk traditions to appear. We sought artists who transcended barriers and in the process becoming innovators with their own creative lives in music. We identified the kinds of artists that, by their very presence and inclusion in this festival, epitomized this musical tapestry of breadth and dimension in music.

We wanted music that was inspiring, performances that were moving, traditions that were held to new standards, and new musical ideas that brought us together and asked us to marvel at the possibilities of music and of art. For those of us who had a hand in planning this music festival, making the connection to Seattle music lovers, to Pacific Northwest music lovers, and to the national and international audiences the festival drew helped us accomplish our goal of extending both musical and cultural bridges. That goal was met with great results.

I wanted to lend a hand with inspiring a theme of participation at SummerFest — not just to entertain and delight audiences, but to inspire audiences to do wonderful things musically and culturally when they return home. And we did see audience members sampling our variety of concerts with this theme of anticipation and participation throughout the festival.

I loved performing my Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Maya Beiser and Seattle Symphony — and, especially, my opportunity to tell everyone that this music was to lift up and remember the heroes made in the aftermath of 9/11. Likewise, I loved stepping on stage at Benaroya Hall and playing my Six Caprices on the solo violin before a symphony audience, all with a renewed energy and physical stamina I had not realized before. And more great memories: Performing with my Hot Swing ensemble in tribute to one of my musical heroes and teachers, Stéphane Grappelli; sitting in with Earl Scruggs and with Wynton Marsalis during their respective concerts — what a festival!

Even introducing the shows and letting the audiences know what was coming in the following days was a rush! I played my slow piece, Appalachia Waltz, with some young string-playing prodigies from the area in front of toddlers and their parents for the Tiny Tots Extra. I could simply hear nothing but babies screaming! But I could sense something special in the room as we played, as parents rocked their babies back and forth. Then the parents led them in a standing ovation after that lullaby. It seemed as if we tapped in to something beyond what we could have imagined in very young children for a moment.

Years ago, I forged a new musical path. Sometimes a hard path to walk unimpeded, and it often still is not the easiest of ways. But I always felt that my three loves in music — my love for classical music, for jazz and for folk traditions — must co-exist in new, important, and in much better and more sophisticated ways than they had before. Sometimes it is the music and compositions that bring about the new dimensions, sometimes the performers do it on their own, and sometimes major American symphonies can represent these dimensions, as Seattle Symphony does in its programming and performing. Sometimes, too, it is a team of arts presenters that are responsible for thinking of staging such possibilities — such is the case Seattle Symphony Executive Director Tom Philion, who centered on a mission to create something beautiful for Seattle audiences. The wonderful and collaborative combination of these people and ideas became SummerFest.

We had classical audience goers at Earl Scruggs; we had folk audiences members at Wynton Marsalis; and we had jazzers at Mahler. Well, it was a dream scenario — participation through appreciation. That is the festival spirit, and that is what summer is all about for musicians. Those things, combined with the best weather in the United States in any July of any year, and some of the best food to taste and natural beauty you could ever see in any metropolis, this is something, really something to consider visiting next time. With your help we can grow to become a summer tradition in
Seattle come July!

Mark O’Connor


Mark O'ConnorWhen I was an 11-year-old growing up here in Seattle, I was introduced to bluegrass music through recordings, and Earl Scruggs became one of my musical heroes. Even though I was learning the guitar and the fiddle, I wanted a banjo, too, and I bought the Earl Scruggs banjo book. I also took private banjo lessons, and even entered a local banjo contest in Woodinville. (Anybody remember the Seattle-area’s first bluegrass festival back in 1973?)

Butch Robbins, a great young banjo player booked at the festival — and a fantastic musician who played with Bill Monroe for a time — showed me some Scruggs licks, including the main finger roll in Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” To play that riff, I had to drop my right thumb from the fifth string to the second, over and over and over. Butch told me that this was how Earl Scruggs did it, and I shook my head in disbelief!

Even though my own banjo playing exploits were very short-lived (I quit playing the banjo when I was 12, though I did place second at the Woodinville contest!), I never quit being a huge Earl Scruggs admirer. I met him in person when I was 12, and attended many summer festivals at which his old playing partner Lester Flatt performed with his Nashville Grass group. The Earl Scruggs Revue, starring Scruggs and his three musician sons — Gary, Randy and Steve — took the stage at some point during these festivals, too. It was magical to be around this scene as a youngster.

Later, as a professional musician, I was invited to perform on Earl Scruggs’ second instrumental album, an album he loved doing because it featured his sons. I was the only additional instrumentalist invited to record with them; it was an amazing week of recording for me, because I felt like I was invited to the Scruggs dinner table as another brother, just hanging out and hearing lots of wonderful stories, and seeing how the Scruggs boys revered their legendary father.

Just last December, I was invited to play with Earl and Randy Scruggs again, this time at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. I was proud to do so. I showed up to the rehearsal and camera blocking and I assumed that I was going to be a part of a bigger band with Earl. But they decided it was going to be just a trio, made up of Earl, Randy and myself. Once again, I was able to share such a wonderfully close time with one of the legendary musicians of American music, a man who invented and made popular a great music tradition.

And, by the way, ol’ Earl tore it up! The audience loved it. Surely a musical highlight of the night for them. It was there at the Kennedy Center Honors that I invited Earl Scruggs to be a part of SummerFest. What a fitting closing finale for our festival!

Mark O’Connor

Earl Scruggs and an array of artists, including Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet featuring Béla Fleck, perform on July 14 to round out SummerFest 2008. Want tickets? (Really, who wouldn’t want tickets?) Grab them here.

A big thank-you to those of you who helped Seattle Symphony adopt eight orcas!

In honor of the mission of The Blue Planet Live!, the Symphony committed to adopt one orca for every 50 Blue Planet tickets sold since July 1 through the Whale Museum’s Orca Adoption Program. Now, thanks to all of you, the Symphony is the proud supporter of a mini-pod of Puget Sound orcas. All funds go to support conservation efforts and research.

Way to go!

In a last minute programming addition, SummerFest Music Director Mark O’Connor will now perform all six of his Caprices for Solo Violin at Thursday’s concert! You won’t want to miss this rare opportunity to see all six of these jaw-dropping showpieces played back-to-back by the composer himself, whose performances of them have earned him the title of “the reincarnation of Paganini.” Preview Caprice No. 2 below.

Prepare to be amazed. Get tickets here!

Week one of SummerFest has come and gone — and, oh, what a week it was! Check out this backstage snap from last week’s Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. Band leader Wynton Marsalis (center) hangs out with student musicians from Graham-Kapowsin High School. Their jazz ensemble were runners up in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s nationwide Essentially Ellington high school jazz band competition.

Up this week! The Blue Planet Live!, Mark O’Connor and Maya Beiser: For the Heroes, Cirque de la Symphonie, and Earl Scruggs with Family & Friends.


Win big with Cirque and Seattle Symphony!

In honor of the Symphony’s upcoming presentation of Cirque de la Symphonie on July 11 and 12, we’ve pulled together a set of circus trivia. The first five people who respond with the correct answers via email will win a pair of tickets to the July 12 performance of Cirque de la Symphonie. Ready? Set? Cirque!

The standard size of a circus ring was determined as the arc which a horse could navigate at a full gallop. What is the diameter of that arc?

  1. 36 feet
  2. 42 feet
  3. 49 feet
  4. 59 feet

Which of the following tokens is considered good luck by many circus performers?

  1. A tiger’s whisker, attached to their costume
  2. Dirt or sand from inside the ring, sprinkled in their shoes
  3. A ticket stub from that day’s show, rubbed for luck before entering the ring
  4. An elephant’s tail hair, worn as a ring or bracelet

Who put on the first circus in the United States?

  1. John Bill Ricketts in 1783
  2. Joshuah Purdy Brown in 1825
  3. P.T. Barnum in 1842
  4. James Anthony Bailey in 1881

How many brothers founded the Ringling Brothers Greatest Show on Earth?

  1. Two
  2. Three
  3. Five
  4. Seven

What is the name of this famous circus theme song?

  1. Three Ring March
  2. Entrance of the Gladiators
  3. Pachyderms on Parade
  4. March of the Clowns

To Enter: Email your full name, telephone number, and answers to, with “Cirque Quiz” in the subject line, by 5 p.m. on Monday, July 7. You will be contacted via telephone by Tuesday, July 8, if you have won.

It’s a banjo bonanza! Last week, we blogged the Benaroya Hall debut of the up-and-coming Sparrow Quartet, featuring the cross-cultural stylings of Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck. This week, we’re shouting out to the legendary Earl Scruggs, banjo master and bluegrass icon. Here’s a peek at just a few of his many accomplishments:

  • Scruggs Style. Scruggs was instrumental (pun intended) in developing and popularizing the three-finger style of banjo picking — one which allows for more expressivity, precision and versatility — now referred to as the Scruggs Style.
  • Major Kudos. He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, holds a National Medal of Arts Award and has a star embedded in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. What’s more, in 2005, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum dedicated special tribute in honor of his contribution to the world of music.
  • Recordings, recordings, recordings. Scruggs’s discography includes more than 30 CDs and DVDs, including solo albums, as well as those recorded with Lester Flatt and as part of the Earl Scruggs Revue. Even more impressive? Scruggs has worked with some of the biggest names in music, including The Byrds, Maybelle Carter, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Dan Fogelberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Kenny Loggins, Waylon Jennings, Linda Ronstadt and Loudon Wainwright III, among others.
  • Long Live the Legacy! Now 84 years old, Earl Scruggs is in his sixth decade as a recording artist, and still going strong. This past February, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, joining the impressive ranks of Doris Day, Cab Calloway and Itzhak Perlman.
  • And speaking of Grammys… Scruggs has snagged not one, but two Grammy Awards for “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” now a bluegrass standard. Watch him pick this iconic tune on the David Letterman Show with actor, comedian and fellow banjo player Steve Martin (with whom he won the second Grammy) below:

Get in on the orca-adoption action!

For every 50 Blue Planet Live! tickets sold between July 1 and July 8, Seattle Symphony will adopt an orca. Prompted by The Blue Planet’s aim to protect the oceans and their inhabitants, Seattle Symphony is partnering with The Whale Museum’s Orca Adoption Program to raise awareness and help directly support ongoing research on orcas and other marine mammals in the Pacific Northwest.

Buy a ticket, save a whale. What could be better?

Giant Pacific OctopusWelcome guest blogger Cindy Roberts, staff biologist at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium! Read on for a look at Puget Sound’s underwater wonders (of the eight-legged variety) in honor of the Symphony’s upcoming performance of The Blue Planet Live!, only at Benaroya Hall on July 8 & 9.

Living in the Pacific Northwest can be wonderful, as it provides many diverse experiences for both locals and tourists alike. From hiking and biking to the many festivals and arts activities in the area, there is always something to do. There is one thing, however, that makes Western Washington extra special — the Puget Sound. I consider myself fortunate to be able to live and explore the Puget Sound, as it is home to one of my favorite marine animals: the Giant Pacific Octopus.

Giant Pacific Octopuses are the largest octopus species in the world and are an icon of the Pacific Northwest. Adult males can weigh up to 100 pounds — females average 50 pounds — with an arm span of 14 feet from tip to tip. Octopuses have the largest brains of all invertebrates, and although they may look like slimy aliens from another planet, they are actually beautiful, muscular, intelligent animals. Octopuses are amazing hunters: they use more than 200 suctions cups on each of eight arms to capture crabs, shrimp, clams and even an occasional rockfish. In the wild, the Giant Pacific Octopus keeps busy protecting him or herself from predators, hunting for food and, near the end of its short three-year life span, looking for a mate.

You can experience a Giant Pacific Octopus up close and personal at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. These fascinating creatures are kept in captivity for only a few months so that biologists can learn more about them, and so the public can see them in the flesh. The octopuses are then released back into the wild with the cooperation of local wildlife agencies so they can finish out their lives in the beautiful Puget Sound.

To keep octopuses mentally stimulated while in captivity, the aquarists provide enrichment. Food puzzles, lidded jars and even children’s toys help bring out the octopus’s natural problem-solving behaviors, and keep it busy — a good thing, because If an octopus is bored, it gets into trouble. There are many stories of mischievous octopuses escaping from their tanks! Octopuses have been known to work their way through mazes, improving their time after each round. Even more unbelievable: octopuses can even paint and create artistic masterpieces (of course, “masterpiece” lies in the eye of the beholder).

With their fascinating looks and often underestimated intelligence, Giant Pacific Octopuses are not only an important part of our ecosystem; they are also an inspiration to us as we work to protect our oceans and our Earth.

Banjo-ista Abigail Washburn brings her Sparrow Quartet — featuring Béla Fleck on banjo, Casey Driessen on violin, and Ben Sollee on cello — to Seattle for an evening of folk and bluegrass, all in the Quartet’s signature East-meets-West style. Want a taste? Check the video:

The powerhouse foursome performs alongside banjo icon Earl Scruggs on July 14. We can’t wait.

Get tickets.