black violin

Oregon Music 2018: looking outward

Socially engaged sounds, multimedia productions, and other trends in 2018 Oregon music

Last year’s music roundup first looked homeward. ArtsWatch’s 2017 music coverage focused, as we have from the outset, on our state’s creative culture: music conceived and composed in Oregon. We touched a lot of other bases, too of course, and homegrown music remained a touchstone our 2018 coverage and this recap.

But as with other Oregon artists this year, Oregon music increasingly gazed outward — and often askance — at our nation’s continuing descent into turmoil, division, lies, and political corruption, starting right at the top and oozing down. Therefore, so did much of our music coverage. So we’ll start with what ArtsWatch’s David Bates called…

“Socially Engaged” sounds

Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic and choir Resonance Ensemble devoted entire seasons to contemporary classical music that responds to today’s social issues.

Resonance Ensemble preview: questions of faith
Choral organization’s ‘Souls’ concert is part of a season-long musical exploration of timely social concerns
Brett Campbell, February 23

‘Bodies’ review: Pride is a verb
Resonance Ensemble’s Pride Week concert commemorates LGBTQIA community’s struggles and celebrates its creativity.
Matthew Andrews, August 14

Resonance Ensemble

Resonance Ensemble: amplifying ‘Hidden Voices’
Vocal ensemble’s collaborative concert features musical responses to experiences marked by racism and resistance.
Matthew Andrews, November 17

Fear No Music: music of migration and more
New music ensemble demonstrates dedication to diversity and development.
Matthew Andrews, December 10

New music ensemble Fear No Music

Other classical music organizations also presented issue-oriented new music.

Oregon Symphony reviews: immigrant songs
Fall concerts include a world premiere theatrical commission and 20th century works by immigrant American composers
Matthew Andrews, January 9

Lawrence Brownlee preview: a journey
In a Friends of Chamber Music recital, the celebrated tenor sings a Romantic classic and a new, timely composition about America’s most pressing crisis
Damien Geter, April 2

Shredding it at “Pass the Mic” camp.

Portland Meets Portland
The innovative “Pass the Mic” summer music camp pairing music pros and young refugees and immigrants will give a free concert Friday.
Friderike Heuer, July 14

David Ludwig: telling the earth’s story through music
Composer’s Chamber Music Northwest commission inspired by ancient Earth, threat of extinction from human-caused climate change.
Matthew Andrews, July 27

Gabriel Kahane’s new oratorio confronts America’s empathy deficit
Commissioned, performed and recorded this week by the Oregon Symphony, ’emergency shelter intake form’ humanizes homelessness.
Interview by Matthew Andrews, August 28


Besides addressing today’s social issues, another trend among some classical music organizations in 2018 was updating their presentations by augmenting music with other art forms such as theater, literature, visual arts, and more. At ArtsWatch, we try to provide constructive feedback on how these often experimental productions worked, so we can help risk-taking artists move forward into unexplored territories — without leaving the audience behind.

Fin de Cinema’s “Beauty and the Beast”: spirit of discovery
Latest mix of classic film and Portland contemporary music captures Cocteau creation’s mix of beauty and grit.
Douglas Detrick, January 23

Portland Youth Philharmonic’s Cappella PYP, Portland State choirs, and In Mulieribus perform Richard Einhorn’s ‘Voices of Light’ during a screening of Dreyer’s film Friday.

‘Voices of Light’ preview: trial by fire
Camerata PYP, In Mulieribus, Portland State University choirs perform Richard Einhorn’s popular oratorio ‘Voices of Light’ with Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc.’
Brett Campbell, January 25

“Tesla” lab report
Harmonic Laboratory’s ambitious experimental multimedia performance produces mixed results.
Brett Campbell, February 6


Black Violin: busting musical stereotypes

Violin & viola duo blends classical music with pop and hip-hop

“We’ve been stereotyped from the moment we picked up the instruments,”Black Violin violist Wil Baptiste Jr. told me in 2016. “Every time we step on stage, we shatter every stereotype, every perception — violin, classical music, black man, whatever.” Baptiste and his high school classmate and violinist Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester will be demolishing stereotypes again Friday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and Sunday at Hult Center’s Silva Hall in Eugene with their barrier-busting combo of classical, hip hop and pop music.

Black Violin performs Friday in Eugene and Sunday in Portland.

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 recalled. “We started off with hip hop before we even picked up an instrument.” When he and Marcus reconnected after college, they started adding beats to classical tunes like concertos by Vivaldi and JS Bach, and also adding their strings to covers of hits by Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa and other pop stars. “We understand both worlds,” Baptiste said. “So we couldn’t help but to try to put them together; it was really natural to blend the two.”

In 2004, the duo 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’s 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, national tours. 


Pavel Haas Quartet, Black Violin reviews: on and off the record

Two Portland string-centric concerts show the complementary values of live and recorded performances

One thing you can’t get from a live show—portability. I’ve been walking around town listening to Black Violin and the Pavel Haas Quartet everywhere I go. Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself on the bus cranking up BV’s punchy “Rhapsody” (off their first album, Classically Trained); walking home through Ladd’s Addition in the middle of the night, blasting PHQ’s astounding Schubert recordings after a late rehearsal, or in the bath chillaxing with their lovely recent recording of the Smetana quartets; I’m dashing to a composition lesson, late as usual, sneaking in one last round of “Day 2” (off BV’s second album Stereotypes) as I wend my way through throngs of dogs and their students soaking up the late spring sunshine in Portland State’s parks and flowery paths.

Another benefit of recordings, one which well complements the live experience, is their potential to bring non-linear temporality to the whole listening experience. You only hear the music live once (unless you’re following Phish around), but you can listen to the recording over and over again. Hell, you can listen to one movement over and over if you want to, or even just that one super cool break between the bridge and the last chorus. Conversely, when you know a group’s recorded output it gives the live experience a different kind of familiarity; I heard this first hand when I walked into Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last month for Black Violin and the whole audience was already singing the hits. And that works the other direction, too: when I listen to these albums, I remember what I saw and heard at the concerts, making an otherwise dry and solitary activity much more stimulating. …

Black Violin: Live and Recorded

Just this morning my partner and I had a crazy little Breakfast Adventure, trying to find a decent diner-style brunch spot downtown. I was all cranky because I just wanted to get some greasy eggs and coffee and get back to work (on this review), coffee-deprivation was turning into anti-gentrification rage, and the beautiful morning was turning into an unseasonably sweltering Portland afternoon as the sun grimaced down on the southwest sidewalks.

Black Violin’s Wil Baptiste performed in Portland last month. Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

We finally ended up at a little cafe on West Burnside, exhausted from our fruitless diner quest, and settled for a couple of breakfast croissants and steaming cups of hot, delicious, hipster coffee. As I sat there steaming over my lost work day, The Universe (or rather one of Her agents, Our Lady Eris), played a little practical joke on me. Drifting out of the quaint cafe’s radio, sandwiched incongruously between aughtsie classics like Modest Mouse’s “Float On” and some Strokes song I couldn’t remember the name of, came the familiar strains of Black Violin’s “Virtuoso”, off their first album, 2012’s Classically Trained. A little jab from a jovial goddess, teasing me out of my grouchy writer’s block. This, too, is what recorded music is for.

Another thing you can’t get from a record: the intimacy of performer and audience. My colleague Maria Choban has already given Black Violin’s mixed Schnitz crowd a better description than I can; I want to know where she goes to “buy her young” because I could use some too. I had to laugh at my stationary Irish ass, flabbily filling a front row seat while everyone around me boogied and cheered and waved their hands in the air.

Portland5 and Chamber Music Northwest brought Black Violin to Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

It would be hard to pick a favorite “live” feature from this show: Wil strumming his viola like a uke and leading a sweet sing-along of “Invisible”; Kev taking solo after blistering solo on his badass electric violin, a giant grin radiating out from under his cap; the band’s customary totally improvised number, not just some simple jam (though there were jammy elements, here and throughout) but a full-on group-improvised song, complete with extended down-beat negotiation and impeccable on-the-spot decision-making from the whole group; DJ SPS’s ridiculous turntable skills and witty, PDQ Bach-esque solos; BRAVO Youth Orchestra coming up on stage for “Magic” and the Copland-inspired “Shaker,” starstruck-but-confident young violinist Luis Chan-Hernandez taking the solo with Kev and nailing it with a sly smile while attentively eyeing the older man’s more advanced bowing technique; Wil and Kev encouraging each other and their band and their fans and the kids on stage, pumping each other up, breaking stereotypes, showing “what a black man is capable of” and reminding us that “there’s always hope to fuel the fire.”


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.