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Building Bridges: Black Violin

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Jun 1, 2007 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2007, commentary_2007

Wil B (viola) and Kev Marcus (violin) of Black Violin

Good things do happen on Friday the 13th.  One of them was Black Violin, featured on "The Mayor's 801 Plum Concert” held in Cincinnati city council chambers at City Hall in April.
The African-American duo – violinist "Kev Marcus” (Kevin Marcus Sylvester) and violist "Wil-B” (Wilner Baptiste) brought a new perspective to the municipal arena, not by beating city hall, but by bringing a beat to it.  Their mixed classical, jazz and hip-hop program fulfilled the mission and spirit of the Linton Chamber Music Series, presenter of the event (and the "801 Plum” season finale June 1, featuring members of the Morales-Matos family).
"It brought a very young and energetic crowd to a concert at City Hall that was faithful to the classic definition of chamber music, one musician to a part, no conductor,” said Michael Chertock, Linton associate artistic director.  "They really connected with the audience and opened a lot of ears to new possibilities.”
"The crowd of 300 was extremely diverse and the people ranged from 4 to 90-year-olds,” said Tracy L. Wilson, "801 Plum” program director.
It was Wilson who pegged Black Violin for the series after hearing them on "Showtime at the Apollo” in 2005.
Classically trained Kev and Wil-B, both 25, are "Apollo legends,” four-time winners of the talent competition at the famed theater in Harlem. (Check them out at www.myspace.com/dknex and www.blackviolin.net.)
After "Showtime,” the duo got taken up by popular artists like Stevie Nicks, Linkin Park and Ludacris.  They toured internationally with Fort Minor&rsquos Mike Shinoda, performed for the 2004 Billboard Awards with Alicia Keys and the NFL Kick-off party with Sean "P-Diddy” Combs.
The question was, according to Linton artistic director Dick Waller, could Black Violin really bridge the classical divide by performing straight classical music in conjunction with hip-hop?  "They hadn't been doing that,” said Waller, so he sent them some scores to consider for their Linton concert.  He sent them Schubert and Beethoven trios, a Mozart violin/viola duo and the Serenade in C Major, Op. 10, by Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi.
The latter clicked, in part because Wil-B had studied at Florida State University where the composer spent the latter part of his career. 
With the addition of cellist Joseph Valbrun ("Joe Cello”), they opened their 801 Plum concert with the Serenade.  "Young people were cheering for Dohnanyi,” said Chertock.
The visceral excitement came during "The Mixtape” with their regular DJ Dwayne Dayal ("DJ TK”).  Here, it was the turn of the Beethoven set to be amazed, as Kev whipped out his electric violin and Wil-B amplified his viola for hip-hop beats cued by Dayal on his turntable.  The response was, well, electric, with many standing, clapping and even dancing (this writer attended the concert and witness to the excitement).
"I saw some grandmothers and grandfathers really breaking it down,” said Chertock.  "The concert crossed race, age and musical mind-sets,” echoed Anne Black, chairman of the Linton board of trustees.
Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory introduced the concert, making special note of the benefits of music education, which for Kev and Wil-B, who grew up in the inner city (Ft. Lauderdale), meant a ticket to higher education.  Both were viola majors at Florida International University in Miami, where they studied with members of the Miami String Quartet.
Co-emcees were Chertock and Jade West, DJ at WIZF-FM 101.1, chief media promoter for the event.
West and Chertock had fun with the term "break it down.”
"It seems to have nuances depending on the context,” said Chertock.  "I gather it means something like 'let's start doing what everyone came to see and hear.’  It could also mean 'let's bring this experience to a higher level of focus and intensity.’”
West gave it her emphatic seal of authority:  "It means “let loose.  Do what we came to do.  Get thangs crackin’.”
 She and Chertock hit it off right away, West said.  “He was a classical kind of guy and me, I’m hip-hop. We were complete strangers who formed together to get the party started.  Everyone thought our banter was scripted, but it wasn't. We were formally introduced just minutes prior to the show. That's what you call 'going with the flow,' truly a moment in my life I'll never forget.”
Black Violin's visit was not without incident, said Wilson, who discovered when she picked up the musicians at the airport that the fingerboard of Valbrun's cello had been damaged during the flight.
"After Joe completed the damaged cargo report, several of us caravanned to the Baroque Violin Shop (Finneytown) as if we were a family headed to the emergency room to check on a loved one.  Philip (Doan) assured him that he would have it repaired by the next morning and offered to loan him another for the rehearsal.”
The fun came next, said Wilson.  "The guys followed Philip to a small warehouse across the street so Joe could try out and choose a loaner.  What started out to be a 10-minute excursion to pick out a cello, turned into a 40-minute string jam fest.  They played just about every instrument in the warehouse, checking out the highs and lows and the depth and richness of each instrument.  My godson and his friend were with us.  They were in awe and really enjoyed their private concert.”
The April 13 concert, which was recorded by City Cable for later broadcast, was a community event "in every sense,” said Wilson.  "Piper Davis from the Arts Consortium gathered artists to show their works during the happy hour.  Chef Marcus Hauer and Cincinnati Cooks! Catering (subsidiary of the FreeStore Food Bank) dished up an incredible happy hour spread.  Sam Ash Music donated the DJ equipment for DJ TK.  Joseph Buick Chevrolet GMC donated the SUV to transport Black Violin.  The event touted an eclectic core of volunteers to make sure that things ran smoothly.”
The word got out.  Black Violin broke a record at Enjoy the Arts/START (members enjoy discounts for arts events) for the most number of inquiries on their website.
Still, Linton did not advertise or market the concert to the traditional Linton audience, said Waller.
"Our marketing plan with the 801 Plum series is to draw younger and newer faces to classical music and ultimately to chamber performances such as Linton and Encore (Linton's Monday evening series at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Montgomery).  Some of our subscribers did attend Black Violin and there is a lot of buzz about the June 1 concert.
"Our greatest hope is that this talented group (Black Violin) will incorporate more classical music into their repertoire, but of course that is their professional decision.  I discussed this with them after the concert and they seemed up for the idea.  Surely, they enjoyed the audience's response at City Hall.”
They did, said Wilson.  "They said that they have performed all over the world in huge arenas and have never experienced the love they received from our community.”  Mallory and his Kitchen Cabin held a reception for them in his office prior to the happy hour.
"Working with what I fondly call Team City Hall has been great (clerk of council Melissa Autry, Mallory's chief of staff Carla Walker, Ron Wahl who is assistant to vice mayor Jim Tarbell, Don Eckhoff, Joel Koopman and Michael Mitchell of city facility management and Steve Sobel of CitiCable).  This is their concert series as much as it is Linton's and they are just as committed to positively engaging the community.  They have been great hosts, actually more like family.”
Arts patron Melody Sawyer Richardson, a major donor of the event, summed it up this way:  "This was more than just a concert.  It was a coming together of the community and musicians.  I applaud the Linton Series and particularly Dick Waller and the board for being open to fresh new ideas and to taking a risk.”
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
(first published in The Cincinnati Post June 1, 2007)