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Musical heros - Joel Hall

Over the course of my life, I've met a lot of people who have inspired me. Very rarely, however, do I get to meet face to face with my personal, musical heroes.

I can probably count on one hand the number of times when I have actually had a chance to interact, one on one, with those famous individuals who have inspired me to no end.

In high school, I had the chance to talk with Yo Yo Ma, perhaps the greatest cellist in the world and one of the nicest people I've ever met. During a master class at college, I had a chance to meet Joshua Bell, another incredibly nice individual who even let me hold his priceless, 1713 Gibson Stradivarius violin, valued at approximately $4 million.

As an intern for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I had a chance to interview and nervously play a few bars for the famous jazz violinist, Regina Carter.

Last weekend, however, I had a chance to meet one of the musicians who has inspired me probably more than any other.

Mark O'Connor, a former pupil of Stephane Grappelli and a violinist whose body of work spans across classical, jazz and bluegrass, wasn't the reason I picked up the violin at a young age, but was the person who inspired me the most not to put my instrument down.

The first time I remember coming across one of his compositions was when I was a high school sophomore. At that time in my life, I was more worried about fitting in than pursuing an art, and I really could have gone either way, in terms of seriously pursuing music.

Classical music was the only thing that I thought my instrument was capable of at the time, but that all changed when my orchestra teacher one day decided to drop the curriculum and introduce us to bluegrass music.

One of the first bluegrass pieces I ever played was a Mark O'Connor piece. Eventually, I started listening to his jazz compositions and pieces he had composed for full orchestra. In those last few years of high school, mostly through O'Connor's music, I learned that the violin wasn't this archaic instrument, but a versatile one, capable of fitting into almost any genre of music.

About a week and a half ago, he was right here in Georgia, at the Savannah Music Festival, and I felt like I had to meet him. I took a vacation day, got a hotel, and drove three-and-a-half hours to Savannah just so I could see O'Connor play in person.

I had purchased a ticket to see Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio perform at the Charles H. Morris Center. While I thought that I would be somewhere way up in the stands, the venue was very intimate and I was able to sit about 10 feet from the stage.

It was one of the most impressive jazz performances I have ever seen on the violin and afterwards, I got to shake the man's hand and even get him to sign my CD. However, that wasn't the last time I saw him. Over the course of the weekend, I seemed to run into Mark O'Connor almost everywhere I went.

When I went to see the U.S. Army Strings perform at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Pooler, O'Connor was a special guest playing the "Strings and Threads Suite," a piece drawing heavily from the sounds of Appalachia. When I saw Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform Ted Nash's "Portrait in Seven Shades," at the Johnny Mercer Theatre, O'Connor was a special guest there as well.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear O'Connor perform in person in classical, bluegrass and jazz settings, because it was a reminder that the violin is something that anybody can take joy in listening to. I know that anybody else who attended the festival that weekend will know for certain that the violin is not just a stale piece of wood.

Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at jhall@news-daily.com.