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Violinist Performs Music Of The 'Black Mozart'

Illinois Symphony Orchestra
Clayton Penrose-Whitmore grew up in Springfield until his parents moved him to Chicago for higher level musical instruction.

Growing up in Springfield, African-American violinist Clayton Penrose-Whitmore was one of few people of color around him playing classical music. Penrose-Whitmore has gone on to a career in music, winning prizes in the Sphinx competition and performing with noted groups such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Penrose-Whitmore is playing music of the man known as the Black Mozart on Saturday night at Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington.

Penrose-Whitmore said the music of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint Georges, a violinist, champion fencer, and composer of the mid to late 1700s, remains cool for central Illinois audiences.

He said the music sounds similar to Mozart.

"The concerto number nine I am going to play Saturday is very energetic and full of liveliness. It's very accessible for all audiences and exudes a lot of joy," said Penrose-Whitmore.

It's important to perform these works by underrepresented composers, said Penrose-Whitmore.

The Chevalier was the son of a French nobleman and a slave on the island of Guadelupe.

"As an African American violinist I am definitely committed to performing works by composers of color," said Penrose-Whitmore.

The Chevalier de Saint Georges was also a champion fencer in his day, though Penrose-Whitmore said he is not sure that comes through in the style of the music. Saint Georges also wrote quartets and operas, though he had less success in opera than with his music for strings.

He said he is devoted to bringing awareness to different composers such as Saint George, George Walker, or William Grant Still who are great composers but whose works are not performed much. He said most audiences do not react much up front to the fact he is African-American.

"I'd say the reaction is most apparent from audience members of color. In a lot of performances, with the Sphinx organization especially, there are audience members who have never been to a classical music performance and they will come up to me and say, 'I never knew a black guy could play the violin. I didn't know that was even possible,'" said Penrose-Whitmore.

Even seasoned audiences do not often see African-American performers, but Penrose-Whitmore said he hopes his presence might make them come away from the performance thinking a little differently about who should be represented playing this type of music.

Penrose-Whitmore also composes, arranges, and produces for modern pop music. Among his work is the song "Nobody's Better" performed by the artist Z featuring Fetty Wap.

He said he wants to continue that work and branch out into film scores while still continuing his instrumental career and work with the Sphinx organization.

Penrose-Whitmore spoke via Skype with GLT's Charlie Schlenker ahead of his Saturday performance with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra at Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington.

You can also listen to the full interview:

Hear Clayton Penrose-Whitmore talk with Charlie Schlenker about his life as an African American classical music violinist.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.