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Mark O’Connor and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
Robinson Center Music Hall
Jan. 14

Andrew Irvin, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s co-concertmaster who is a fine violinist himself, had the best seat in the house about six feet away and, telling by his widening eyes, was enjoying every second of the marvelous performance put on by fiddler Mark O’Connor and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg on Sunday afternoon.

Irvin had already seen the pair perform O’Connor’s “Double Violin Concerto” on Saturday night, but his eyes Sunday told the whole story. This was a performance to behold.

We just wished Sunday that more younger people had been in the audience, which filled about two-thirds of the auditorium. O’Connor is one of the leading contemporary composers around, and the young Salerno-Sonnenberg is one of classical music’s leading practitioners. Sunday ASO Masterworks concerts tend to draw a bit older audience, and too it was raining cats and dogs all weekend, making it less likely those without season tickets would venture out.

Some of the older concertgoers near us, during and after O’Connor’s piece with the ASO, offered such thoughts as “that was different” and “you don’t hear that everyday.” No, you don’t. Where many symphonic shows focus more on the classical, Sunday’s audience was treated to jazz and blues delivered in a symphony setting by an outstanding American folk artist, O’Connor, who has shared the stage with Yo Yo Ma and others of that ilk.

He’s taller than we imagined, towering over Salerno-Sonnenberg and the ASO maestro, David Itkin. O’Connor’s movements were mostly bending over with his fiddle as the mood of his piece changed from frenetic swing to smooth big-band-style mellow to Dixieland. Salerno-Sonnenberg was more active, going at her violin with violent strokes during a syncopated early portion, with the Symphony’s violins alternately mimicking the movements of the two stars.

It was a striking piece in three movements, and the seemingly exhaustive duet-playing style of the pair on the first movement even drew applause where audiences never clap. At the end, the audience stood up with rousing applause, bringing O’Connor and Salerno-Sonnenberg out for another bow with Itkin.

Irvin displayed his solo prowess the second, hopeful part of the brief string-only opening work, Guillaume Lekeu’s sad “Adagio, Op. 3,” which seemed to fit the dreary weather outside and contrasted nicely with O’Connor’s uptempo 20th century string musicfest to come. Cellist Melita Hunsinger and Katherine Reynolds on viola also stood out strongly as the piece moved toward a deep, soft finish.

Most of the Symphony was back on stage after intermission to superbly perform Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7 in A Major,” a four-movement work with its melancholy “Allegretto” and a stirring, brassy conclusion.

— Jim Harris

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