By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor
Perhaps when one thinks of classical music, a young, Black woman with a curly afro is not what immediately comes to mind. However with shows such as “Black Pioneers in Classical Music,” on Feb. 22, professional violinist Melissa White and National Philharmonic are dispelling any myths about classical music and celebrating in the diversity of the art form as well as its artisans and audiences.
“I love organizations and ensembles like National Phil that bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront. I know from experience that they care deeply about their audience. They have a wonderful audience, and I love that they pioneer growing their audience, particularly outside the box,” White told the AFRO in an exclusive interview. “When we think of classical music it’s like old White people, but they proactively work hard to combat that and I respect that a whole, whole lot.
As an arts entrepreneur, founding member of the Harlem Quartet and movie musician who can be heard playing violin in the critically acclaimed film Us, White has been honing her craft for nearly 30 years.
“I basically don’t remember life without the violin in it. It’s been quite a journey. I would say an adventurous, fun, challenging, but amazing journey,” White said.
The violinist fell in love with the instrument on Sesame Street at the age of four and began playing at six. Since then, she’s learned valuable lessons about investing in one’s self, work ethic and following dreams.
Growing up in a middle class family in Lansing, Mich., White’s parents couldn’t always shell out the money necessary to hone a gifted child interested in classical music. Thus, in order to help fund her education, White would play violin on Saturday mornings in the community barbershop for tips and compete in talent shows for cash prizes.
“Since I started my parents taught me that I could sustain this, and if it was something I wanted, it was something I really could do, and hard-work could allow me to do anything. So that’s what fueled my career all along,” she said.
Coming a long way from passing pans around in a barbershop, White tours all over the world with her violin, affording her amazing opportunities and chances to meet other artists, such as National Philharmonic conductor Piotr Gajewski, with whom she’ll be performing at the “Black Pioneers in Classical Music,” performance on Feb. 22.
A tribute to Black composers, the music featured includes: Wild Strumming of Fiddle (from All Rise) by Wynton Marsalis, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major by Florence Price, Lyric for Strings by George Walker and Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”) by William Grant Still.
White said she has been challenged and empowered as she brought the rediscovered music of Price, a Black woman, to life.
“This piece, some of the parts are particularly difficult from a violin standpoint. I don’t think Florence was a violinist. So that has provided a fun challenge,” she said with a sincere giggle.
In playing her music, White began to unearth some of the composer’s influences and styles, allowing for a deeper connection to Price and her work.
“I can hear her voice as I learn the piece, so that’s what’s really carried me through in the most exciting way. She was highly influenced by classical composers who came before her because she was classically trained. And so I hear, for instance, the famous composer Tchaikovsky, and he wrote a violin concerto, and I hear a lot of influence from Tchaikovsky. And then I read up on Florence and I learned that she was encouraged to let the Negro Spiritual element into her music, so I can sort of hear that kind of stroke in aspects,” White said. “Putting that all together has created a palate that I feel is very creative and allows me to be creative with the voice that I give this music.
Like Price, who was a music instructor and even chaired the music department at what is now Clark Atlanta University, White hopes to inspire young people to follow their dreams.
“I believe the arts are important to human development, and many times that becomes more of a privilege than a right and it just breaks my heart. So I love the fact that perhaps seeing someone, who a young Black girl can identify with, might allow her to dream bigger. And if it’s not the violin, perhaps there’s something else that will allow her voice to be bigger and bolder and used for the greater good,” White said.
White can be seen inspiring through the violin at National Philharmonic at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD, on Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. There will be pre-show lecture beginning at 6:45 p.m. For tickets visit: https://www.nationalphilharmonic.org/concerts-2019-20/. Children ages seven to 17 are encouraged to attend the performance and will receive free admission.