Dallas — “Inspiring,” “uplifting,” and “proud” were frequent words that came to the lips of the polled patrons following Friday evening’s concert of Black Violin on the Strauss Square stage in the Dallas Arts District, presented by AT&T Performing Arts Center. The classical/hip-hop crossover act brought a large and diverse crowd with an unusual start time of 9:45 p.m., allowing some of the more eclectically inclined patrons of the Dallas Symphony to head next door to the outdoor pavilion after a traditional program of dead white men’s transcendent masterpieces. There, they were treated to a 90 minute eclectic set of “Bach meets Biggie,” as Black Violin’s Kev Marcus called it, with a heart-warming surprise at the end.
After the show, I spoke to a sample of about 20 members of the crowd, which appeared to number approximately 1,000 ticket buyers. That a hip-hop show would bring a majority black crowd is not unusual, but I did find enlightening and surprising some answers from these sample patrons on the general appeal of the group and what brought them out on a one of those stunning spring evenings Dallas can be gifted with occasionally.
Some had known Black Violin previously from their work with Alicia Keys or discovered them through classical crossover artists like Lindsey Sterling, but most discovered the show and were compelled to attend with only a small sampling of their music. The appeal for many was simple and direct. Here were two black men, wielding string instruments, and mixing hip-hop culture with classical culture in a way they just had to take in — because they were not only a product of hip-hop culture themselves, but they also loved classical music or grew up playing violin or some other traditional orchestral instrument in school. They considered themselves to love “all kinds of music,” including some current hip-hop, but mostly R&B and old school hip-hop.
So, how did they describe the experience of Black Violin on this especially beautiful Dallas evening? “It was so uplifting,” said one beautiful and stylishly dressed black woman in her 20’s. “I played violin in junior high. It made me feel proud to see these guys from our culture mixing different areas that I love and bringing it all together.” Her date had apparently scored some big points, as he had discovered the show through promotional posters. “I grew up playing trombone in school, and I like a variety of different types of music. This really caught my attention,” he said.
Black Violin describes their shows as “Classical Boom” and announced to the audience to prepare for “a party.” In reality, Black Violin’s concert vibe is decidedly a more chill experience than you would normally experience at a Kanye West show. This was something not lost on my polled sample of concert-goers, but they weren’t complaining about the experience at all. One said, “I see the vibe as something like you would get at a jazz or folk festival. It’s a chill experience. There were moments when there was more energy and times when it was more chill, but it was all good.”
Black Violin (Kev Marcus on violin and Will B on viola and occasional vocals) performed as a quartet with drummer Nat Stokes and standout turntablist DJ SPS. The mix certainly allowed the unique interplay of violin and viola lines between Kev Marcus and Will B to be clearly heard as the focal point of the show, demonstrating that their dedication to combining the classical and hip-hop idioms has an authenticity that goes beyond novelty lip service. I personally would have liked a bit more bass line presence in concert, which would have provided more punch, and more intricate supporting synth parts could have been used to beef up the arrangements to provide more of the party atmosphere if they were indeed going for that.
Despite that, the 90-minute show moved quickly and provided a good variety, with original instrumentals mixed with well-crafted original songs with vocals (Will B’s catchy “Addiction” is a stand-out). There were unique takes on classical themes from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Vivaldi’s “Spring,” and an interlude of announced improvisation was followed by an incredible display of turntablism by DJ SPS as Kev Marcus and Will B left the stage so their side men could have the spotlight for a while.
After Black Violin said goodnight and seemingly left the stage for the evening, stage hands quickly set the stage for an unannounced special encore which left an impression with all who witnessed it. The Dallas Symphony’s Young Strings orchestra (created for exceptional young people of color between 6th and 10th grade) came on stage and performed Black Violin’s track “Shaker” with the full Black Violin band. One woman in her 30’s told me after the show, “Wow, so amazing. My daughter’s going to learn to play the violin and she’s going to be able to do hip-hop, too. You know, that’s her music.”
» Mark Landson is the founder of Open Classical, which produces over 100 classical music events yearly, including professional chamber music concerts, comedy operettas and the free Classical Open Mic every Tuesday at Buzzbrews Kitchen on Lemmon Ave.