African-American violinist Melissa White, while an anomaly to some, continues to enchant audiences around the world as both a soloist and a chamber musician.
And to illustrate that she’s deserving of the many accolades showered upon her, White, a winner of the prestigious Sphinx Competition, will be a featured soloist with the National Philharmonic Orchestra in an exciting Black History Month celebration, “Black Classical Music Pioneers.”
The concert, which takes places at The Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday, Feb. 22 at 8 p.m., reunites White with Philharmonic Music Director and Conductor Piotr Gajewski and features works by some of the most prolific African-American composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Compositions include: Wynton Marsalis’ “Wild Strumming of Fiddle;” Florence Price’s “Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major:” George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings;” and William Grant Still’s “Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American).”
White, a founding member of the highly-acclaimed Harlem Quarter with whom she’s toured worldwide since their founding in 2006, will be the soloist for Price’s “Violin Concerto No. 1.” Price (1887-1953) bears the distinction as the first Black woman to be widely-recognized as a symphonic composer.
White, 35, who recently showcased her musical prowess as a featured soloist on the soundtrack of the 2019 horror film “Us,” says that while she’s honored to be a Black woman playing the music written by another Black woman and composer, that it should not matter as “the music speaks for itself.”
“As a child, I was often the only Black person going to camps, workshops and taking lessons,” said White who attributes her success to the sacrifices of her parents who found “creative and resourceful ways” to raise funds and pay for her training throughout her youth in her hometown of Lansing, Michigan.
“Now, with our living in such a visually-emphasized time, it’s important for people to see diversity in action – particularly youth,” she said. “I think about how exciting it must be for them to see Black women doing so much in the arts, the sciences and in so many other professions. There are hashtags today that affirm the importance and abilities of Black girls but this concert is about living Black history and I’m honored to see it happen and to be a part of it.”
White recalls the first time she saw a violin being played and the impact it left on her life.
“I was four watching Sesame Street when Itzhak Perlman appeared on the show,” she said. “I liked the way his chin fit in the chinrest and thought it was perfect. After the episode ended, I asked my mother if I could take lessons. It took me two years of continued requests. Then, one day when I was six, I came home from lunch and there was a violin sitting on a chair.”
“My mother tells the story that after my third lesson or so, my music teacher, who was an instructor in a community-based afterschool program, informed my parents that I had real talent to which my father replied: ‘That’s funny because she doesn’t sound that good to me.’ Still, my family made a way for me to study including my mother taking a five-hour drive every Friday to Chicago for lessons with a teacher while I was in high school. I played at my brother’s barbershop and we passed the can. I entered every competition available and used my winnings for more lessons. It was a team effort.”
White says she wants children, especially Black boys and girls, to consider her career as a concert violinist as something to which they can similarly aspire.
“From the beginning, I had a drive within to be my best self,” she said. “There was this fire within that drove me and the violin was my calling. I fell in love with it. I just want to show young people that whatever fire is burning inside of them, that they can to it too.”
Strathmore is located at 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to nationalphilharmonic.org or call 301-581-5100.