Yo-Yo Ma and Christylez Bacon on the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra stage.
Yo-Yo Ma and Christylez Bacon on the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra stage. [Rebecca Kiger]

Wheeling Symphony Orchestra blend hip-hop and classical with guests Yo-Yo Ma and Christylez Bacon

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WHEELING, West Virginia (WOUB) — The musical stylings of cello and hip-hop are firmly separate in the minds of most. But patrons of the arts in Wheeling, WV witnessed how well the two compliment each other when world-renowned cellist Yo-yo Ma and progressive hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon joined the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra for the opening of its 2022-23 season on Thursday.

The opening night celebration “American Stories” featured four scheduled performances by all American composers and a surprise encore duet of the two featured artists.

The night began with orchestra members breaking tradition and entering into the audience to perform Caroline Shaw’s haunting “Entr’acte” in the aisles. The piece, full of abrupt transitions and difficult to predict melodies, provided a unique experience for the audience. The piece was followed by The Star Spangled Banner, arranged by Enrico Lopez-Yanez, a signature of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.

Finally, it was time for Yo-Yo Ma.

The 19-time-Grammy Award winner has performed all over the world including an informal performance at New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia during last week’s lead up to Thursday’s concert. But that was hardly Ma’s first performance in the Mountain State. He previously performed with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra in 1972 at age 17.

Ma was greeted with a standing ovation when he took to the stage. Ma and the Wheeling Symphony together performed Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, a revised version of a piece written for the musician by the legendary John Williams.

The performance was dreamlike in composition, with William’s signature style coming through to create film-like images in the minds of the audience. Ma’s performance is known worldwide for a reason and his passion for the instrument and music in general was evident by the look of pure joy on the musician’s face.

Ma’s performance was met by thunderous applause from the nearly 2,000 audience members and Ma graciously showed his respect for the orchestra members and Wheeling Symphony Orchestra Music Director John Devlin.

Next on the program was hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon, but before he and the orchestra performed together, Ma and Bacon played an impromptu duet, with Bacon beatboxing to Ma’s cello. The unscripted moment was a preview of the powerful combination of musical styles that Bacon would shortly be bringing to the stage.

“Migrations in Rhythm: A concerto for Beatbox and Rhyme” composed by Evan Meier and Christylez Bacon was a commission of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra years in the making and Thursday’s performance was the world premiere of the work.

The piece told the story of American music history, through music styles played by the orchestra and narrative rap from Bacon. It highlighted how music evolves through the bridging of cultures and the influence of other countries on the United States. Bacon’s beatbox throughout the piece evoked the wind, which ushered the audience through time as musical styles evolved from West Africa’s musical influence due to the slave trade, to Irish immigrants impact on Bluegrass in Appalachia and beyond to the modern music scene.

The style is brand new to the world, hip-hop concertos aren’t exactly commonplace. The audience seemed to not know what to make of it at first, with Bacon receiving a timid response at the beginning when he asked for them to repeat the word “migrations” back to him when prompted. By the end of the concerto, however, he seemed to have won them over. Bacon received multiple standing ovations for his performance and the piece, and he was able to bring composer Evan Meier out on stage for recognition.

The evening was bookended by a pre-concert gala dinner and an afterparty featuring more live music for ticket holders.

The Wheeling Symphony Orchestra will continue its “American Stories” throughout the season. Next up the orchestra will play more John Williams music as the season turns to the Harry Potter films with its “Halloween at Hogwarts” on October 21.