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.
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 John 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 over 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 simple-minded, 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, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
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.
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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