Monday, July 21, 2003

Young violinist is black, American and talented



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Antonin Dvorak took over the National Conservatory of Music in New York and forged a distinctly American future for orchestral music, beginning in the 1890s.

Until then, much classical music was heavy, Germanic. Even American composers sounded European.

Dvorak shocked his contemporaries by including several blacks and women among his first students. He borrowed from Negro spirituals, folk music and, later, jazz for a lighter, more varied sound.

"The future music of this country must be founded upon what are called Negro melodies," Dvorak wrote in 1893.

"These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. ... They are the songs of America, and our composers must turn to them."

Dvorak's students later taught others, including great American composers Aaron Copeland, Duke Ellington, Ruth Crawford Seeger and George Gershwin.

Fast forward to eight years ago.

Gareth Johnson, a 10-year-old African-American kid from blue-collar Festus, Mo., attended his first symphony. Famed violinist Itzhak Perlman was performing solo in St. Louis.

"I can do that," Gareth told his dad, a physician.

Soon after, Gareth spent $80 he got for his birthday on a violin from a pawn shop. His mother, a music teacher, taught him "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and a prodigy was born.

He "hacked away" he says, until a violin teacher in St. Louis recognized his talent and took him to the Juilliard School in New York, where the "godmother of violin" Dorothy DeLay assigned one of her assistants to him.

Gareth studied with top teachers in St. Louis; Chicago; Aspen, Colo.; and here, at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

He practiced three to four hours a day, mastering everything from basics of vibrato to the subtleties of musicality, how to make music touch people, he said.

Seven years after he picked up a violin, Gareth has won national awards and performed solo with professional orchestras in Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis, Boston and Baltimore.

This week, he performs with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, in its "Classical Music: Spiritual Heights" series.

The free, family concerts are being held in churches, Tuesday through Thursday, to celebrate African-American contributions to music.

John Morris Russell, CSO's associate conductor, said the concerts will bridge cultures and age groups. As will Gareth.

"He has this great sense of enthusiasm," Russell said. "Every note (he plays) has excitement and youthful vigor."

Gareth, who lives in Florida with his parents, says he's used to being among the few young minorities in classical circles. But he wishes there were more.

"This is where my whole story and goal in life links together. Breaking down stereotypes - that's me."

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The 7:30 p.m. concerts are Tuesday at Zion Baptist in Avondale, Wednesday at Lincoln Heights Missionary Baptist, and Thursday at Quinn Chapel A.M.E .in Forest Park.

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E-mail damos@enquirer.com or phone 768-8395.




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