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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

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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.

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!

Mark O'ConnorI first met Chris Thile when he was 12 years old. I remember him being a really nice kid who seemed very talented on the mandolin. He and his dad were hanging out at the Gibson booth at the NAMM convention in L.A.

I saw him next in Nashville, around the time that I was leaving there to live in California. This was 1997, and I believe he was about 16 years old. He was playing at the Station Inn with a singer and some other high-profile acoustic players. I thought that, while Nashville loses one acoustic player in myself, at the same time it gains Chris Thile; a pretty fair trade. The trade actually was a little more ironic, in that I ended up moving to a section of North San Diego County just a few miles from where Chris was born and raised — and he’d just left the area the year before I got there.

We met up again when he came over to my place in San Diego while visiting his band mates. We spent the better part of the day hanging out, doing relaxing things and talking a lot. At that time, I began thinking about a way to accomplish my Thirty-Year Retrospective recording project, and I invited Chris to join me in the recording.

The very next year, though, Chris’ group Nickel Creek turned in their debut, self-titled record with Alison Krauss as producer that was a winner. Just a super album, and the sales and fame began to climb rapidly. Within a year, they were at a gold album status with more to come.

For me, though, it became a little frustrating because my album project was nearly impossible to schedule with Chris and his career on rapid-fire acceleration. If it hadn’t been for Chris’ desire to record my retrospective with me (which consisted of a lot of music that in fact influenced Chris in his formative years), the project may not have happened.

The recording took place in Nashville after three days of rehearsals, with additional pre-rehearsal, solo study time. The recording took place in front of a live audience in three concerts over three days. The result was 2 1/2 hours of music that was some of the finest acoustic and bluegrass-styled music I have ever been able to do. Chris Thile was integral in the project. Without him, the double CD would never have transpired.

Few people are irreplaceable, and certainly not for great lengths of time if so. At that time, there was not another player that could have made my Thirty-Year Retrospective possible. Thanks, Chris.

Mark O’Connor

Mark O’Connor teams up with Chris Thile and his new group, Punch Brothers, on July 2. Add O’Connor’s own “Hot Swing,” with vocals by international jazz sensation Sophie Milman, and you’ve got a show you won’t want to miss. Want tickets? Get ’em here.

Seattle is kicking off summer in style this year, with the weatherman calling for sun and summery temperatures (well, for Saturday, at least). Planning to get out and catch some rays? Stroll through the West Edge Chalk Walk or Fremont Fair and Solstice Parade? Maybe take in a baseball game or two?

Pump up for that great American pastime with Punch Brothers’ version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” that old saw of the seventh-inning stretch which celebrates its 100th birthday this summer.

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Like what you see? Don’t miss Punch Brothers at Benaroya Hall on July 2, when they perform alongside SummerFest Director Mark O’Connor and his own “Hot Swing,” featuring vocal jazz sensation Sophie Milman.

And check back next week for Mark O’Connor’s take on meeting Punch Brothers’ own mandolin master, Chris Thile!

Video courtesy ESPN.

Mark O'ConnorWynton Marsalis and I are the same age (46 at the time of this writing) and we both came to national attention on recordings in the early ’80s, so I had known of Wynton and his music all of my adult life.

I did not meet Wynton until 1996, on a very interesting and auspicious occasion. The setting was the 100th Olympiad, at the rehearsal for the Closing Ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, in which both Wynton and I had starring roles. I came to the first rehearsal for the finale, featuring everyone involved on stage at once. I took my position at stage right. Wynton was clear on the other side of the big stage when we made eye contact and smiled. While I stayed in my place, Wynton came all the way over to my side of the stage to greet me, and he hugged me. I was blown away by his affection and sense of camaraderie.

During the two full days of Closing Ceremony rehearsals, much of it taking place on Olympic stadium field, Wynton and I would play our instruments towards one another in a kind of conversation and interaction, getting to know each other with our phrases and sound. Calls and responses again and again, just passing each other in the hallways out on the field while we were in each of our parade floats, standing atop of them and playing our acoustic instruments while the P.A. was off. All of the electric keyboards and electric guitars were silent and suspended many times during the day while folks on the gigantic stadium field listened to Wynton and me play our phrases back and forth as our floats passed each other by.

The next time I met up with Wynton was in 1997. I was working on an album called Liberty!, which also served as much of the soundtrack to the documentary series on PBS about the Revolutionary War. I had incorporated beautiful duets I’d arranged for James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma for the project. I had a third duet idea, one with trumpet and violin. Of course, I had Wynton in mind for the trumpet part. My executive producer was not so hot on the idea, and said that I did not need it for the project. I said phooey and flew to NYC to meet Wynton for lunch at a sushi restaurant.

While eating, I pulled out a five-page part at the table, consisting of a duet I had just written based on an old theme from the 1700’s, called “Brave Wolfe.” He looked at it and suggested that we try it out.

“Where?” I said. But Wynton simply got out his trumpet in the middle of the restaurant to play some of the passages.

“Do you have a rehearsal studio?” I asked.

“It’s fine here,” Wynton said. So we played through the music — and got some free sushi out of the deal — right there in midtown Manhattan!

Wynton liked the music. He commented that the only problem was when to record it, timing being a little tricky, as he was booked to the hilt. Similarly, I was not able to pre-plan any session for this either. He suggested that I come over to the studio where he was working and, after his own album session had concluded, we could tack on another hour for this duet.

I said, “Great. When?” His response: TONIGHT!

So, under the cover of night, we recorded our first performance together. The next morning I dropped off the master at Sony Records, and said that this is a new track for the Liberty! album. The rest is history.

Mark O’Connor

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra take the stage on July 1 at 7:30pm as part of SummerFest 2008. Get set for jazz at its finest!

Mark O'ConnorWelcome to Seattle Symphony’s SummerFest! It is a great pleasure to be the Festival Director and to return to my hometown of Seattle, a place where I was born and spent my formative years. I have had the great fortune of performing my compositions with Seattle Symphony in years past, and of adding my performances to each season at the fabulous Benaroya Hall since its opening.

Over the years, I’ve mulled over how great it would be to help create a music series that combined the best of classical, jazz and folk music in a summer festival setting hosted by the great Seattle Symphony. We have accomplished just that at SummerFest. I have invited some of the greatest musicians in the world, known for their boundary-crossing musical imagination and innovation, to join us. I invite all of you to take one incredible musical journey for a few weeks, exploring new music projects, celebrating the great music traditions, and enjoying some performances by some of the best musicians in the world.

Our festival features an extraordinary lineup. Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Earl Scruggs with family and friends, and Maestro Schwarz conducting Wagner and Mahler are just a few of our festival’s highlights. Regarding my own festival performances, I am looking forward to the Northwest premiere of my Double Concerto for violin and cello, For the Heroes, with the dynamic cellist Maya Beiser and Seattle Symphony. I am also bringing my “Hot Swing,” too, along with mandolin wizard Chris Thile for an evening of some hot picking!

We want to make some music history with this festival, a music model that is brand new and cutting edge. I, for one, am glad that it is happening right here in my hometown of Seattle. Enjoy!

Mark O’Connor

Tom PhilionHello, everyone! I’m Tom Philion, Seattle Symphony’s Executive Director, and I’d like to welcome you to Seattle Symphony’s new SummerFest 2008 blog, where you can get an inside look at the Symphony’s new summer festival. Encompassing some 14 concerts between June 26 and July 14, SummerFest 2008 features an eclectic mix of artists, musical styles and programming, under the collaborative guidance of Grammy-winning American composer and performer Mark O’Connor.

Many know Mark best for his incredible genius as a performer — from old-time fiddle tunes to jazz — through such collaborative projects as Appalachia Waltz with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and appearances on countless recordings with the world’s top artists. But he is also known for his brilliant composition work: from television and film to the concert hall, O’Connor has made incredible contributions to the world of symphonic music, including his double concerto, For the Heroes, which celebrates the heroic efforts of so many following the tragic events of 9/11, and which will feature cellist Maya Beiser and O’Connor himself at SummerFest 2008.

For jazz lovers, Wynton Marsalis and his remarkable musicians from Jazz at Lincoln Center perform on July 1, while Mark O’Connor’s own Hot Swing group appears on July 2 with special guest vocalist Sophie Milman and an opening act, the much-heralded Punch Brothers, featuring Chris Thile.

We have the BBC’s Blue Planet Live!, which will include the series’ brilliant footage with full orchestra accompaniment conducted by the film composer George Fenton, along with narration by local actor and the voice of KPLU’s BirdNote, Frank Corrado.

Cirque de la Symphonie, a new touring program making waves across the nation, stars extraordinary cirque artists performing jaw-dropping feats to the classics of the symphonic repertoire. Our festival concludes with banjo icon Earl Scruggs, joined by Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, featuring Béla Fleck with Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee.

We hope you’ll agree that the festival lineup is fantastic. We’ll see you at SummerFest!