An innovative new program combining classical music with social action is coming to Providence Sunday December 5th. That’s when FirstWorks is presenting renowned classical violinist Johnny Gandelsman with selections from “This is America” at the First Unitarian Church in Providence at 4PM. Ticket information here.

Gandelsman is a founding member of string quartet Brooklyn Rider and a former member of the acclaimed group Silkroad Ensemble. He has worked with several award-winning artists including Bela Fleck, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Redman, and Suzanne Vega. He has also appeared with Bono, David Byrne, Renee Fleming, Rhiannon Giddens, I’m With Her, Christian McBride, and others.

I spoke to Gandelsman last week and discovered his musical roots run deep. The Brooklyn, NY resident came to the United States to go to school in 1995.

“I was born in Russia into a musical family, my parents are musicians, and my older sister is a musician as well, so music was always in our family. I’ve been playing violin since I was five years old,” he explained. “I came here to go to school and have been living here since.”

He described how “This is America” came together. “This project was developed during the height of the pandemic last year. It was a crazy year with the election and the killing of George Floyd and all the things that were happening.”

“Within the classical music community there was also a conversation going on that rose to the top of people’s minds,” he continued. “People were questioning what stories were being told at concert halls, what voices are being heard, and who was not being heard. So I commissioned about 20 musicians and composers to write works for solo violin to represent a tiny fraction of those voices that need to be heard in concerts. I asked the composers to reflect on the time, the year that we were living in.”

A broad range of compositions emerged from the project.

“People chose different things to write about. Some of the works are full of joy and some are not, some are very contemplative… what’s great is that they’re all very personal statements from the composers,” explained Gandelsman.

He’ll be presenting selections from the program at the Providence concert.

“The concert will include four new works that have been written for me, three of them from this project and the fourth was written a few years ago but fits into the general idea of what we’re presenting. We’re also going to perform with a local organization, Community MusicWorks, that I have worked with in the past.”

Gandlesman has worked with many musicians outside of the classical genre in recent years including banjo player Béla Fleck. He described how those experiences have strengthened his creative approach.

“I’ve had a chance to work with musicians from other cultures from other musical traditions they often have a similar trajectory. They’ve spent a lot of time learning their instruments and figuring out everything there is to figure out about their instrument and how to express themselves in the best possible way.

“I feel like every time I have a chance to work with a musician from a different tradition I end up learning a lot. That learning helps me approach the music of Beethoven or Mozart. This project “This is America” is stretching my comfort level with certain things. There’s music that comes from the Indian classical tradition, Irish classical music, Irish fiddling. For me, that’s where the fun is!”

Tickets are still available for Sunday’s performance. Click here for details.

Notes on the concert:

For this special FirstWorks program, Gandelsman will perform selections from “This is America,” and Providence’s Community MusicWorks will join him for a performance of Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto.”

The concert will open with the premiere of “Woodland Impressions,” a program developed with EmmaLee Holmes-Hicks through FirstWorks’ inaugural commission initiative. It included the new suite for erhu (two-stringed Chinese fiddle), violin and marimba composed by erhu virtuoso Jing Wang, performing with violinist EmmaLee Holmes-Hicks and percussionist Piero Guimaraes. “Woodland Impressions” is inspired by FirstWorks themes of “Raise Your Voice,” which celebrates diversity and “Earth First,” which addresses environmental justice.

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music, the arts and more for What'sUpNewp. He is also a contributor to Providence Monthly, SO RI, Hey Rhody and The Bay magazines. Ken DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse,"...