A Dream Pursued

The Young Eight is showing the world of classical music what it means to be young, gifted, and black

A Dream Pursued

Making it in classical music is no waltz in the parlor these days. Leaving aside the years of study and practice that it takes just to reach a level of professional quality, the music is hardly the popular draw it was back in the day – it's now way too old-school to be old-school, if you catch my drift – so getting the public ear is more challenging than ever. And even if you do get it, so many other musicians are already ahead of you that it's easy to get lost in the blur of black tuxedoes and formal gowns. Outside of the rare string-slinging superstars such as Yo-Yo Ma and the Kronos Quartet, classical players today tend to bleed together in broad stereotypical clusters – the slender, fair American women, the stormy-eyed Eastern European men, the sober-faced, deeply focused Chinese men and women – or in the seemingly endless string of quartets. How does one remember how to distinguish the Miró from the Emerson from the Brentano from the Cavani from the Turtle Island from ... ?

And yet, in this crowded field, one group is managing to break through the horde, to stand apart as something a little different from your standard classical ensemble. It consists of eight members. They're all under 30. And they're all African-Americans. From the moment it was formed four years ago at the North Carolina School of the Arts, the Young Eight has been defying expectations of what a contemporary classical music group should be, and its notable successes – not just in terms of critical recognition and the presold classical crowd but in reaching nontraditional audiences and young musicians of color – means this ensemble may wind up doing much more than making it in classical music. It just might be changing the face of it. And for at least a little while, Austin is the heart of that transformation.

Eight Is Enough

Making an argument against the Young Eight is easy enough. For starters, relatively little music has been composed for ensembles of eight, so once you've trotted out Mendelssohn's Octet for Strings, what are you going to play? Repertoire, though, is likely the least of the problems facing a group that large. The economics are twice as daunting as for a quartet (double the plane tickets, double the hotel rooms, double the meals, double the booking costs), but harder still are the human factors, which offer something more like four times the challenge: coordinating eight schedules, unifying eight artistic sensibilities, integrating eight personalities.

Quinton Morris, the man responsible for founding the Young Eight and currently pursuing his doctorate at the UT School of Music, has heard it all and more. "Do you know how many people told me this is not going to work?" he asks. He doesn't supply an answer, but one comes through in the tone of his voice: too many. Still, the young violinist had it in his mind that it could work, that he and these seven friends – whose alma maters constituted a where's where of advanced music studies: Juilliard, Boston Conservatory, New England Conservatory, Peabody Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, Mannes College of Music, Cleveland Institute of Music, Indiana University – these gifted young musicians could band together and create something fresh, something original in their chosen field. They had a dream, and he was determined to see it realized.

So they began playing together, first at the the North Carolina School of the Arts, where Morris had done his undergraduate work, then at a recital hall in Seattle, near the town where Morris spent his high school years. And shortly they were playing all across the country, landing a host of residencies along the way: NCSA, Harlem School of the Arts, Winston-Salem State University, First Philadelphia Charter School for Literacy, Community Music Works, Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Mich., and Austin's own Huston-Tillotson University.

Of course, every gig has meant pulling together eight lives from widely varied circumstances. Two are in Austin: Morris and violinist John Littlejohn, who just moved here from Baltimore with his new bride (who's not a member of the Young Eight). One is in Chicago, where he's a professional dancer who plays violin on the side. (This would be Kenneth Jarvis, who, Morris claims, "can rip off the Paganini concertos better than the three of us [he, Littlejohn, and violinist Mariana Green-Hill] put together.") Three must work around school schedules: in addition to Morris, Dawn Michelle Smith, viola; and Ryan Murphy, cello (both at Juilliard). The rest stay busy touring: cellist Tahirah Whittington most recently with the Core Ensemble; violist Chris Jenkins with an alternative string quartet, Invert; and Green-Hill as a guest soloist with such orchestras as the New Jersey Symphony and Memphis Symphony. Overcoming these barriers of geography and academia and the profession is an ongoing challenge, and Morris doesn't pretend it isn't.

"Has it been hard? Hell yeah," he admits. "But I've been doing it since I was a senior in college." And Morris is not about to let a few scheduling struggles shake him off this dream of his. "My mom didn't raise no wimp," he says. He takes a good deal of his inspiration from her. "My mother was a single parent with two sons, 11 years apart. She always told me, 'If you want to be successful, you gotta sweat a little.' You gotta pay your dues."

So Morris plows on, keeping the Young Eight together and on the fast track with a blend of, as he says, "patience, vision, and upbringing."

Paying It Forward

Part of that vision involves much more than the musicians of the Young Eight themselves and their professional success. It's about making a difference in the lives of the next generation of young musicians, particularly those of color. It's one reason you'll see the group sponsoring a competition for composers between the ages of 16 and 34, touring to historically black universities and colleges such as Huston-Tillotson and Fisk University, and conducting weeklong seminars in which they give individualized study to young string players.

See, you don't see huge numbers of black musicians in orchestras and chamber groups. Morris considers it largely "a matter of exposure," that African-Americans don't hear much classical music, so fewer of them are drawn to make that music themselves. Morris and his colleagues know how deeply young musicians of color can be affected by seeing people who look like them pulling those bows and making Mozart or Vivaldi – or William Grant Still or George Walker, to name two notable African-American composers – come alive. It happened to them, inspired them to consider classical music as a profession. Going into communities of color and working with students who are African-American or Hispanic allows the Young Eight to repay that debt, to give to others what was given to them.

The residency at Huston-Tillotson last summer was a prime example. The eight were able to spend a week working with 16 students, providing individualized attention to each one. "We give private lessons every day," says Morris. "If you're a violinist, you have lessons from all four of our violinists. That gives the students four different opinions on their playing," a range of insights into their skills and tools for enhancing their technique.

That relationship goes beyond instruction, however. "We're not only their teachers but their mentors," says Morris, sharing the essentials on what it takes to become a professional chamber musician. "It's not enough to teach the notes. You have to be marketable. You have to know the tricks of the trade." So the members of the ensemble share tips on how to balance your practice schedule and your school schedule, what sort of music is appropriate for various gigs and what to expect when you do one, even what color folder to put your music in (not red for weddings, too distracting) and what heels are best for women players.

Morris takes his cue from two of his instructors – first, Lynn Chang at Boston Conservatory; now, Daniel Ching of the Miró Quartet at UT – and how they serve him as role model and mentor, teacher and inspiration. They also give him a lot of responsibility and treat him as a colleague, something that is also part of the Young Eight's legacy to their younger counterparts. "It can be very intimidating to play with your teacher," Morris admits, but it can also inspire them to work harder, make themselves better. The members of the Young Eight "really love to see the transition through the week," the progress from shy, nervous students to musicians with a stake in their own improvement. Morris says he takes a lot of pride in teaching the students but takes even more in making them colleagues.

Dreaming On

The Young Eight will conduct another string seminar in Austin this summer, although the group is shifting its location to UT. The group is also looking at a New York concert this year, as well as the first leg of its Black College Tour, and more possible residencies. In the meantime, the Austin contingent of the Young Eight will be busy, Morris with his UT studies and a brief European solo tour, Littlejohn teaching at the Orpheus Academy, and both of them teaching at the Austin Chamber Music Center, which is sponsoring a concert next week that will feature the two and their students playing works by black composers. (See Diverse Diversions, right.) What they won't be doing is resting on their laurels. Even for the Young Eight, making it in classical music is no waltz in the parlor.

"You gotta be fresh," insists Morris. "You gotta have new, innovative ideas. We're always asking ourselves: How can we be different? How can we attract more audiences? A couple of years ago, we were in residence at an art museum in the Carolinas, and I told the executive director, 'I don't want to play just another chamber music concert. Who cares?' I got to thinking: 'How about Brahms? Everybody loves Brahms.' So we did a three-day series of all the Brahms sonatas. Have you ever heard of that being done? Every night, we were packed because people thought, 'That's different.' You always have to think of different programs that are innovative, fun, and interesting."

And that's how the Young Eight is making its dream come true. end story

Diverse Diversions will be presented Tuesday, Feb. 28, 7:30pm, at King-Seabrook Chapel, Huston-Tillotson College campus, 900 Chicon. For more information, call 454-7562 or visit www.austinchambermusic.org.

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