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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.


Oregon Symphony violinist Ines Voglar performing in the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, 198?

Oregon Symphony violinist Ines Voglar performing in the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

A few years ago, Oregon Symphony violinist Ines Voglar returned to her native Venezuela and saw a performance of the country’s renowned national youth orchestra. “I was blown away,” she recalls. “They were playing Mahler’s Symphony #2, with a full choir, a deaf choir that ‘sings in sign language, 75 violins, 20 basses” – a colossal orchestra. And they played it brilliantly. “It gave me goosebumps,” Voglar told ArtsWatch.

It wasn’t just the exceptional quality of the music making, nor the sheer size of the orchestra, that impressed Voglar. She was amazed at how the youth orchestra, and the innovative educational program that produced, had transformed hundreds of kids, many of them from impoverished backgrounds, into such superb musicians. And she’s very excited that a program inspired by that renowned educational system born in Venezuela, popularly known as “El Sistema,” is coming to Oregon.

Voglar performed at Portland's Old Church in May.

Voglar performed at Portland’s Old Church in May.

Tonight, a concert at Portland’s Old Church kicks off that ambitious new educational effort. It’s an introduction to and, for audience members so inclined, a fundraiser for a new organization called Oregon BRAVO Youth Orchestras which this fall launches a free, intensive, classical music education program for almost 200 kindergarten through third grade students at one of Portland’s public schools in direst need of music education, Rosa Parks Elementary.
A member organization of the National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired Programs, Oregon BRAVO will be the first in Oregon, and 80th in the United States, which is one of 50 countries that boast Sistema programs. Since its inception in 1975, El Sistema, which became world famous when one of its graduates, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, was named music director of one of the world’s leading orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 26 a few years ago, has taught Western classical music to more 800,000 Venezuelan children from impoverished backgrounds.


Helmuth and Martina Rilling, with Matthew Halls, looking at the score of James MacMillan's "Allelulia" at its July 6 world premiere.

Helmuth and Martina Rilling, with Matthew Halls, looking at the score of James MacMillan’s “Allelulia” at its July 6 world premiere.


Last Saturday, the Oregon Bach Festival chorus sang a sweet surprise 80th birthday gift for retiring founding music director Helmuth Rilling – an “Alleluia” commissioned from the great contemporary Scots composer James MacMillan, who is working on a big new commission for the 2016 Festival. It’s a treat to see the OBF returning to sparking the creation of new music, as it did for awhile every other year a decade or ago, resulting in major works by Arvo Part, Osvaldo Golijov and other composers. (You can hear some of that music this Saturday night at 8 pm, and on demand for two more weeks, on Robert McBride’s excellent Club Mod radio show on Portland’s KQAC radio.)  It’s a coup made possible by a $25,000 NEA grant and by the festival’s executive director, John Evans, a fellow Brit who goes way back with Jimmy Mac.

Note: This story was originally published as part of a larger News & Notes post, but because of the volume of comments and interest, we’re republishing it and the other components as separate stories. Please continue this fascinating discussion below!

Yet amid all the good news, one question kept troubling me: why do our major Oregon classical music institutions keep sending American taxpayer dollars to non-American composers at the same time they fail to invest in the development of contemporary Oregon music? Of course, no Oregon composer is as famous as the above-listed worthies. But MacMillan didn’t reach the stratospheric compositional heights that qualified his for that august OBF commission by accident, or, as the old Romantic mythology would assume, solely by virtue of innate genius. In large part, MacMillan’s success stems from early and continuing support from his homeland music institutions—the kind of nourishment that backward-gazing organizations like OBF and others have failed to provide Oregonians.


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