Mark Gresham | 28 SEP 2021
On Saturday evening, the Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta presented its first Emerson Evening Series concert of the season to a sold-out, socially distanced, and masked audience at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts’ Emerson Concert Hall.
ECMSA artistic director William Ransom conceived this series opener to pair performers and concert material from different genres, in this case, classical and bluegrass. The Mark O’Connor Duo (violinists Mark O’Connor and Maggie O’Connor) and the resident Vega String Quartet shared the program, which paired a Beethoven string quartet with an array of compositions and arrangements by O’Connor.
The Vega Quartet has not had a permanent first violinist since Elizabeth Fayette departed following the onset of the pandemic in early 2020. During last season, David Coucheron, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, filled in as guest violinist. In Saturday’s concert, a new guest violinist, Emily Daggett Smith, performed with Vega regulars Jessica Shuang Wu, Yinzi Kong, and Guang Wang.
The chemistry between the players was immediately evident in the opening work, Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 95. It was remarkable, as if the ensemble had suddenly discovered a new vitality in its playing.
The Vega Quartet then poured their hearts into two movements from Mark O’Connor’s own String Quartet No. 2 (“Bluegrass”): a bustling, energetic second movement and a slow, more bluesy third movement, which concluded the first half of the concert and had almost everyone on their feet. Later in a Facebook post, the composer himself called it an “emotionally impactful performance of my music that was quite soul-stirring.”
Mark O’Connor began the second set solo, with two originals, “Call of the Mockingbird” and “Anniversary Blues,” followed by an improvisation. He then switched to guitar to play his superbly embellished arrangement of the famous “Goin’ Home” theme from Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (“New World”).
Maggie O’Connor then joined Mark in performing a six-pack of mostly original duos: “Emily’s Reel,” “Jerusalem Ridge” (Monroe/Baker, arr. O’Connor), “F.C.’s Jig,” “Butterfly’s Day Out” — in which Mark played mandolin — returning to violin duo for “Strings and Threads Suite.”
The Vega String Quartet then returned to the stage to join the O’Connors in performing Mark’s “Appalachia Waltz” as the finale. At its end, a long tender silence hung in the air, perhaps 10 seconds, before the audience erupted in an enthusiastic standing ovation.
For the O’Connors, especially, it was an emotional night of shared music-making. The concert was their second live public performance after coming out of pandemic lockdown, following their appearance at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this month. ■