Mark O’Connor at the Singletary Center for the Arts: The songs that opened Mark O’Connor’s An Appalachian Christmas concert were all dutiful, decorative sound ornaments for the season. A spry Jingle Bells, a stately Beautiful Star of Bethlehem and a swing-savvy Winter Wonderland were all suitably festive. Yet for an artist of O’Connor’s vast stylistic reach, they sounded a touch safe.
Then, four tunes in, the Grammy-winning violinist, composer and educator turned to a contemporary piece by Kentucky favorite son Steve Wariner called Now It Belongs To You. After a typically deft and virtuosic turn on the strings, O’Connor dropped nearly all of the country accents that pervaded the work to let a three member violin team — himself, Kate Lee and wife Maggie O’Connor — transform the music into shimmering chamber chatter.
The true charm of An Appalachian Christmas, as it turned out, far exceeded the program’s obvious holiday intent. It gathered bluegrass, country, classical, swing and jazz — all styles O’Connor has employed more sparingly and specifically in past Lexington performances.
Carol of the Bells, for instance, again used the violin trio to play off the chime-like playing of banjoist Cia Cherryholmes and mandolinist Forrest O’Connor (the headliner’s son) for a sound that nicely approximated the genre-bending progressive grass music that father O’Connor and his contemporaries explored during the 1980s. Blue Christmas used the hushed vocal appeal of Lee, who regularly recalled the singing of Alison Krauss. Then, at the start of the show’s second set, Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor performed a duet mash-up of the former’s classical/bluegrass hybrid favorite Appalachian Waltz and Silent Night that was rich in improvisational depth, technical command and wonderfully intuitive interaction.
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At what was arguably the performance’s high point, the band took on Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas staple Linus and Lucy, pumping it full of bluegrass gusto and jazzy expression while keeping the tune’s child-like wonder intact as violins appropriated the melody lines that Guaraldi designed for piano.
In summing up the second set, O’Connor and band reversed the flow established earlier in the program by letting the patient beauty of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring shed its classical frame to fully embrace the festive Americana/Appalachian spirit that drove this beautifully inventive holiday celebration.