SALT LAKE CITY — In the 1999 film “Music of the Heart,” Meryl Streep portrays an impassioned music teacher who shares the beauty of the violin with children in the Harlem School District.
Based on a true story, the movie depicts Streep fighting cuts in arts funding by holding a fundraising concert at Carnegie Hall. In this scene, many of her students perform alongside the violin world’s best of the best: Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Joshua Bell and fiddler extraordinaire Mark O’Connor.
When O’Connor attended the film’s premiere in the Harlem neighborhood, he said he was shocked to see around 200 people from the school district protesting because they didn’t like the way they were portrayed.
“It was one of those absurdities in life,” he recently told the Deseret News. “It was like, here’s the highest and the lowest at the same time — highest meaning you’ve got Meryl Streep sitting there, you’ve got the attention of a major motion picture to shine a light on violin education and then you’ve got the absurdities of people boycotting and picketing and not seeing a need for music education. It just showed me that the culture of violin education was really messed up in a lot of ways and I wanted to do something about it.”
And he did. The experience inspired the musician/composer to get more involved in music education, and the fiddler ended up creating the O’Connor Method for violin learning — a method designed to involve musicians from all walks of life.
“Not just from the classical violin world, but every musical world,” O’Connor said. “(The method) doesn’t leave people out, and people don’t get offended by the ‘my way or the highway’ kind of approach.”
Speaking last week from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, O'Connor still exudes that down-to-earth spirit. The fiddler performs at the State Room in Salt Lake City Saturday, Dec. 9, and while he has performed as a guest artist in the Beehive State a number of times, this upcoming show is significant as he’s got a new trick up his sleeve — his family.
Formed in 2015, the O’Connor Band features fiddler Mark O’Connor also playing guitar and mandolin — instruments he set aside for 20 years.
“Now that I’m in the O’Connor Band, it’s really fun to be able to pick up (those instruments) again, and I’ve actually gotten to where I’m as good as I was after a 20-year layoff, so that’s kind of interesting,” he said.
Joining him on mandolin and vocals is his son, Forrest O’Connor, and adding more fiddle and vocals to the mix is his wife, Maggie O’Connor, and daughter-in-law, Kate Lee. Also part of the family’s band is guitarist Joe Smart and bassist/banjo player Geoff Saunders. Saturday night’s show, called “An Appalachian Christmas,” is presented by the Intermountain Acoustic Music Association and will feature a healthy mix of instrumental virtuosity, singing, Christmas songs and O’Connor Band songs.
While Mark O’Connor has accomplished many challenging feats in his career spanning 40 years — including writing the “Improvised Violin Concerto” that features him improvising a violin melody for nearly 40 minutes — he considers putting together a family band one of his biggest accomplishments to date.
“I'm not just going to play with my family like it’s a picnic, but I’m going to actually put it on stage in front of similar audiences that I’ve played for with other people,” he said. “I mean, that’s ambitious. But it’s worked out.”
That seems to be an understatement, as the O’Connor Band already has a Grammy to its name, earning the award this year for best bluegrass album with “Coming Home,” their debut record from 2016. Most recently, O’Connor and his family have collaborated with country artist Zac Brown, who has started producing some of their songs.
“We are having the time of our lives as a band,” he said. “For a long time, I tried to resist using the word ‘proud.’ Because they deserved their accomplishments and so I was kind of more like impressed. But lately, I’ve been finding myself wanting to say that word again, because I feel like we’re doing this together. We’re working together, we’re figuring this out together as a family, and that’s something to be proud of.’
If you go
What: Mark O’Connor’s “Appalachian Christmas”
When: Saturday, Dec. 9, 8 p.m.
Where: The State Room, 638 S. State St.
How much: $30