An Appalachian Christmas (CD review)

Mark O'Connor and friends. OMAC Records OMAC-16.

Anytime's a good time for Christmas music, especially when it's done as well, as incisively, as precisely, as joyously as on this album from Mark O'Connor--American jazz, bluegrass, and classical violinist--and a bevy of famous artists. Among the contributors to the program are soprano Renee Fleming, classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, bluegrass-country singer and composer Alison Krauss, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist and composer Edgar Meyer, jazz and pop vocalist Jane Monheit, singer-songwriter James Taylor, mandolinist Chris Thile, country-music singer and songwriter Steve Wariner, and others. It's an all-star cast for an all-star album, worthy of much repeat listening.

One reservation before getting to the music, though: If you're expecting authentic Appalachia bluegrass, you might be in the wrong aisle. An Appalachian Christmas is a pop album through and through, albeit a good one, with modern, sometimes jazzy arrangements and a big, plush sound. The aim appears to be to appeal to as many different types of listeners as possible, not just bluegrass purists or dedicated country fans. To that end, the album succeeds.

From among the sixteen selections on the disc, let me mention just a few. Things begin with Mel Torme and Bob Wells's classic "Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"), here done up by singer Jane Monheit, jazz artists Frank Vignola and Gary Mazaroppi, and violinist O'Connor (who is on all the tracks). Like the rest of the music, it's up close, with good body, definition, and impact but little depth or air. Like the music itself, it's a pure pop sound, what we've come to expect from most albums of popular music for the past few decades. Audiophiles beware.

Next, it's "Away in a Manger" with opera star Renee Fleming, supported by O'Connor and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. OK, that's not exactly Appalachian country, to be sure, and, in fact, while being lovely the number seems rather overproduced for so simple a tune.

On the other hand, "O Christmas Tree" and Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" sound wonderful for their modest, unassuming presentations, the latter highlighted by a healthy, thumping bass. Then, we get James Taylor doing "Ol' Blue," a great old song but one that seems to have only tenuous connections to Christmas.

Although "Carol of the Bells" could have used more bells, the guitar and piano fill in nicely to complement O'Connor's violin. Which brings us to "Slumber My Darling," featuring the voice of Alison Krauss and the cello of Yo-Yo Ma in a touchingly melancholy rendition of the lullaby. It's kind of a showstopper, actually, and may bring tears to your eyes.

"Winter Wonderland" gets a snazzy, upbeat treatment, sung by Jane Monheit again. A few tracks later, Renee Fleming does "Amazing Grace" with just O'Connor accompanying her, and it's another moving moment in the album.

The mandolin in "One Winter Night" and "What Child Is This" is effective, as are the vocals of Steve Wariner in "Now It Belongs to You." Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" finds a pleasant new setting, eventually turning into a jaunty gigue with violin, synthesizer, and the London Studio Orchestra.

The program ends with a violin and guitar account of "Appalachia Waltz," which is as fitting a conclusion to the proceedings as one could want, even if, again, its relationship to Christmas seems flimsy at best.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa