Black Violin review: black & white

At the classical/hip-hop duo's latest Portland shows, the action happened as much in the seats as on the stage


Commotion at the corner of my right eye. People standing in the rows of the concert hall. No, wait. Grey and white haired women pushing to get to the aisle. Eyes follow to…


Only a few feet away the aisle is bopping to Telemann-like riffs thumping from Black Violin. Playing the posh Schnitzer concert hall, full of older white classical music appreciators and younger African Americans, the classical violin-meets-hip-hop band returned to Portland to promote their album Stereotypes. And oh boy did the mosh pit break ‘em!

Black Violin performed at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

From the stage, violist Wil Baptiste exhorts me to “Put Your Hands Up and Wave Them Like THIS!” His partner, violinist Kev Marcus, nods appreciatively, in rhythm, continuing to plow through noodly passages perfectly in tune. Nat Stokes, Black Violin’s secret weapon on drums, builds a propulsive engaging and LOUD narrative under the flashy strings.

Meanwhile, DJ SPS turned this whole weird juxtaposition between straightahead rock-tight drumming and manic baroque strings into glass, dropping in today’s beats and disembodied vocals. Add columns of colored lights and a fog machine and you’d have to be dead or a snob to not giggle along with the infectious enthusiasm.

This April 3 evening concert was brought to you by Portland’5 and Chamber Music Northwest. The latter’s audience is mostly old, white, well-heeled and well versed in classical music. I have not cared for them until tonight. Thinking they were driving the old school, 19th-century dominated CMNW summer programs whose shelf life expired at least 10 years ago, I expected them to exit the building with the decibel assault alone. As much as I was cheering Black Violin for their showmanship, I was cheering the CMNW crowd in the Mosh Pit for putting on their own show: “You’re Never Too Old to Boogie to a Brandenburg!” I wish they’d take over programming for CMNW.

A few hours earlier….

“Welcome to YOUR Theater!” Portland’5 executive director Robyn Williams booms to the crowded noon audience of over 2,500 students and others. “How many are here for the first time?” Nearly all hands raise accompanied with delighted squeals and much excited wiggling. Working with Title 1 Portland Public Schools, Portland’5 bused in elementary school students for a free noon concert with Black Violin. It was a ParTay the entire hour! Kids screaming, singing along while the showmen onstage turned their cheering knobs ever louder.

This band has a knack for being motivational without being pollyanna. When Kev Marcus got to the heart of Black Violin’s mission, he followed “It’s about thinking outside the box and breaking stereotypes” with a passionate street jab:

“I’d hear from my friends ‘Man, why you even playin’ that instrument? It’s not even cool!’

Well, We’re gonna make it cool!”

The kids in the Schnitz roared their approval!

And just like with the evening crowd, students started bopping to the Brandenburg in the front orchestra sections. The students also spontaneously broke into song when Black Violin covered Wiz Khalifa’s “I Came a Long Way to See You Again and Ed Sheeran’s “We Found Love Right Where We Are.”

“Put your hands up!” The audience at Black Violin’s noon show.

I asked several kids after the show what they thought. It was a unanimous ebullient thumbs up from all. I even made it a point to ask a few who looked bored the same question. They lit up immediately: an unforced giddy response. Clearly this was a successful field trip.

When the band filled it up again that evening for the “real” concert, the kids were onstage this time as Black Violin welcomed the BRAVO youth orchestra and guest soloist Luis for their rendition of “Simple Gifts.”

Portland’s Bravo Youth Orchestra joined Black Violin onstage. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

Since Tom Sessa took over Portland’5 programming in 2014, seems like the stodgy concert palace keeps getting hipper acts and younger audiences, and turning older audiences young with new music and vibrant presentation. What’s next on the hit list? A Hip Hop Nutcracker?!


Next time Black Violin comes to town, I’m gonna buy me some youth and dive into the Mosh Pit with the Cool Kids!

Portland pianist Maria Choban is ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch. This story originally appeared on her blog CatScratch.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    Fans of Black Violin will probably also enjoy the Maske Electric String Trio.

Comments are closed.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives