Black ViolinPhoto by Colin-Brennan

Busting Stereotypes

Classical music breaks expectations this month in Eugene

It’s no coincidence that Black Violin’s latest album is titled Stereotypes. “We’ve been stereotyped from the moment we picked up the instruments,” the duo’s violist Wil Baptiste Jr. says. “Every time we step on stage we shatter every stereotype, every perception — violin, classical music, black man, whatever.” On Sunday, Nov. 18, Black Violin brings its barrier-busting combo of classical, hip hop and pop music to the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall. 

After practicing viola in his Florida high school music classes two decades ago, Baptiste would “put my headphones on and listen to whatever record was happening at the time,” he recalls. “We started off with hip hop before we even picked up an instrument,” he says of himself and high school classmate and violinist Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester.

When the classmates reconnected after college, they started adding beats to classical tunes like concertos by Vivaldi and J.S. Bach, and also adding their strings to covers of hits by Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa and other pop stars.

“We understand both worlds,” Baptiste says. “So we couldn’t help but to try to put them together. It was really natural to blend the two.”

In 2004, they brought their act to the toughest audience in America: Harlem’s renowned Apollo Theater. “Everyone else before us got booed. We got these violins. What’s gonna happen?” Baptiste wondered. “The crowd went crazy. That’s validation. That’s all we needed right there.”

Alicia Keys’ manager happened to be there, and soon BV was performing with her, Wu-Tang Clan, Wyclef Jean and more, opening for Aerosmith and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, even playing President Obama’s second inauguration. More Apollo appearances followed, along with TED Talks, SXSW, collaborations with symphony orchestras.  

Now in their mid-30s, the pair still love classical music — and still live hip hop. With their ear-friendly hooks and pop production, stage charisma (including drummer and DJ) and obvious joy in the music (including their own soulful originals as well as classical standards and pop hits), Black Violin draws diverse listeners.

“The best way to describe the audience of our show is to go to a baseball game,” Baptiste says. “You see old, young, all ages, colors and creeds — that’s exactly what we see at Black Violin concerts.”

They do extensive outreach and education programs in schools where they tour, introducing kids not just to the possibility of playing violin but also pursuing their own passions. 

Like Black Violin, the young Akropolis Reed Quintet is shattering instrumental stereotypes. While string quartets and piano trios are by far the most common instruments of stereotypically “classical” ensembles, the quintet plays classic and contemporary music arranged for the unique combo of oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon — and it works beautifully.

“Akropolis is great at balancing expressive lead playing with clear, richly-textured, well-rehearsed group dynamics,” wrote Matthew Andrews in Oregon ArtsWatch after their sizzling performances at Chamber Music Northwest last year.

In their Sunday afternoon (Nov. 18) concert in the University of Oregon’s Chamber Music at Beall series, Akropolis plays an all-American music program of arrangements of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, contemporary compositions by Gregory Wanamaker and John Steinmetz (a name familiar to Oregon Bach Festival audiences), and 20th-century classics by Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein and Charles Ives.

Still another unusual classical ensemble joins the Eugene Symphony Thursday, Nov. 15. The four-time Grammy winning Chicago sextet (piano, percussion, flute, clarinet, cello, violin/viola) Eighth Blackbird returns with a concerto written especially for them by Jennifer Higdon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer who’s probably the closest successor to Aaron Copland.

As she showed in her appearance with the ESO and Marin Alsop years ago, Higdon is one of the country’s most engaging exponents of contemporary classical music, writing accessible yet inventive music and reaching out to audiences with equal generosity. (Read more about the ensemble elsewhere in this issue.)

The rest of the orchestra’s splendid program includes one of Bach’s ever-popular Brandenburg Concertos, some danceable Mozart and Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy 1944 ballet score Fancy Free, which dazzlingly evokes mid-century New York’s cosmopolitan culture via a musical depiction of a story (which Bernstein immediately revisited, sort of, in On the Town) of three sailors on shore leave seeking romance. Both Akropolis and Eighth Blackbird are doing community outreach and education events while they’re here.

Also at the UO, VS Guitar Duo brings its three-generation tradition of Russian Romani music to Berwick Hall on Monday, Nov. 26. The centuries-long migration of Romani people has spread some of the world’s most compelling music around the globe, and it’s evolved with every culture it touches.

Vadim and Sasha Kolpakov will play music from throughout the Romani diaspora including American jazz, Spanish Flamenco, Latin tunes and rhythms and more — all linked by a common, and uncommonly durable, music thread.