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January 24th, 2009

Mark O'Connor at Symphony Space

Symphony Space is a wonderful performance space at the corner of Broadway and 94th Street. It's the kind of place where Balinese puppets perform and Dervishes whirl and Joyce Carol Oates reads spooky stories and Neil Gaiman interviews Susannah Clarke and the original one-woman Golden Dreydel was performed in the 90's. A nice house, good acoustics, 780 seats.

Last night, most of them were full for Mark O'Connor and Sharon Isbin (whose name reminds me irresistibly of ISBNs). He fiddles; she plays classical guitar. They fight boredom. Also genre expectations.

The centerpiece of the program was a suite of arrangements of traditional English folk ballads Joan Baez sang in the late 60's (does anybody remember The Joan Baez Ballad Book? Changed my life, man). I'm not sure what I was expecting, but whatever it was, it wasn't what I got. And I don't know enough about modern classical music to describe it accurately. It was Trad meets--what? 12-Tone? Which sounds awful, I know, but it wasn't. It made me hear hardy perennials like "Unquiet Grave" and "Barbry Allen" and "Rambler Gambler" in new ways. And it made modern classical (which I've never been able to understand or appreciate) more accessible. Which, as the partner of someone who loves all kinds of music and sometimes goes to John Cage concerts, is a Good Thing.

And that was just Sharon Isbin's guitar part. When Mark O'Connor came on stage to play a suite of music he'd composed for guitar and violin, starting with fairly traditional jigs and reels and ending up with the blue-grass and rag-time they developed into when they came from Ireland to America, all inflected with his own, inimitable, O'Connor theatricality and virtuosity. Well. I'm glad I was there, that's all.

[edited to correct name brain-glitch. Ah, well. At least I got it right the second time I mentioned it.]

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