By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -
Black Violin has appeared with Alicia Keys at the Billboard Awards, won Showtime at the Apollo, and performed for second inauguration of President Obama. Now they’ve won the respect of Grand Rapids.
The hip-hop duo that plays string instruments joined the Grand Rapids Symphony for its 18th annual Symphony with Soul and a performance that blew the roof off of DeVos Performance Hall in more ways than one on Saturday, Feb. 16.
For openers, it was a sold-out show, a first for the Grand Rapids Symphony, which launched the yearly event, under a different name, in 2002.
But the lush strings of violinist Kev Marcus and violist Wil B., coupled with a driving beat of a drummer and DJ, took the concert led by Associate Conductor John Varineau in an entirely new direction.
Black Violin’s “Impossible Tour” rolled into town for Symphony with Soul, which in the past has welcomed such artists as Lalah Hathaway, Take 6, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Lizz Wright to DeVos Hall.
The Grand Rapids Symphony Community Chorus, directed by Duane Shields Davis, joined the orchestra for the concert that uses music to further the cause of diversity, equity and inclusion in West Michigan.
Black Violin’s 2015 album, Stereotypes, topped Billboard’s Classical Crossover chart while also reaching No. 4 on the R&B chart. That’s the appeal they have, and DeVos Hall was packed with regular Grand Rapids Symphony concert-goers as well as with first-timers at a Grand Rapids Symphony concert.
The stage, in fact, looked just like a rock concert with computer controlled lighting illuminating mist hovering in the air. It also sounded just like a rock concert with subwoofers sending sonic booms into the 2,400 seat auditorium.
Black Violin writes and performs plenty of original songs including Stereotypes, which opened their half of the show. Their song Dirty Orchestra started very clean and very classy before turning a little bluesy, a little more rhythmic, a little more dirty.
A-Flat, which includes sampled sounds, put both Kev Marcus’ violin and Wil B.’s viola in the solo spotlight. Songs such as Virtuoso just push the envelope with a driving beat.
Black Violin creates a musical mashup with melodies by Mozart, Vivaldi and Bach coupled with hip-hop rhythms and electronics. Mozart Cardi opened with the Grand Rapids Symphony playing a bit of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 as straight as can be before adding in Kev Marcus, Wil B, electronic effects and samplings from Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow.
It’s hard to imagine how two distinctly different genres of music could be blended better.
The first half of the concert opened a rousing chorus of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, with everyone in the house standing to sing the 120-year-old song often referred to as the “Black American National Anthem.”
Davis, who has been a part of the Symphony with Soul since its beginning, composed an ambitious original work for orchestra and chorus titled Soar on Wings like Eagles. With texts from Maya Angelou and the Book of Isaiah, it shares an important message, but the music with swinging rhythms packed a wallop with gospel fervor.
Keyboardist and singer Deborah Perry, another Symphony with Soul veteran, led the chorus and orchestra in a lovely gospel melody, Beautiful Song, and Dr. Cad W. Shannon took the solo vocalist spotlight with chorus and orchestra to sing Love Lead the Way to close
A highlight was a performance of Voices Shouting Out, composed in 2002 by African-American composer Nkeiru Okoye. Born in New York to a Nigerian immigrant father and an African-American woman, Okoye set out to compose a remembrance of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks of the previous year. Rather than a work of sorrow, it evolved into a hymn of celebration, drawing on elements of classical music and hip-hop, with hints of Leonard Bernstein and traditional Yoruba music among other styles.
It’s an inspiring and uplifting work, and it was given an inspiring and uplifting performance.