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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Live: Making sense of Lindsey Stirling in Raleigh

Posted by on Tue, Jun 23, 2015 at 3:22 PM

  • Photo by Karen Strittmatter Galvin
Lindsey Stirling
Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh
Monday, June 22, 2015

There's a mystique to the violin. It seems as though people automatically grant violinists respect more than other instrumentalists, as though it somehow takes more talent to play the violin well than it does drums or saxophone. Add a violin to a band, and suddenly that group is taken seriously, with high-brow terms like "orchestral" or "chamber" tossed around to describe the sound. And if that violinist looks good while playing—especially if they can gyrate expressively— you have a particularly winning formula. I'm a violinist, and although I find this appreciation gratifying, it is also confusing. Why me and not, you know, a master oboist? 

So, I admit to being completely skeptical about Lindsey Stirling, a YouTube and America's Got Talent phenomenon who performed last night at Raleigh's Red Hat Amphitheater to a rather large crowd. I first heard of the “hip-hop violinist” when a 10-year-old student of mine tried to demonstrate how Stirling dances as she plays. He succeeded only in knocking over a music stand. I applauded his enthusiasm but tried to explain why using excellent technique yields a more satisfying musical result than flamboyant gestures.

But maybe I was wrong. The audience at Red Hat last night seemed completely satiated by the event that was a Lindsey Stirling concert.

The crowd was a mixed one: parents and their tween children (mostly girls), middle-aged couples, men between the ages of 25 and 40 who I suspect self-describe as gamers. What this crew had in common, however, was an unabashed enjoyment of the spectacle on stage, a complete, unself-conscious appreciation expressed through screams and smiles

With imaginative animated scenes, the staging tapped into the audience's thirst for fantasy, giving narrative to the music and turning each tune into a cinematic event. Lindsey danced and played, surrounded by backup dancers who mimicked each of her moves, only without holding onto violins of their own. Her style of dance, which seems a combination of ballet and interpretive movement, had her doing backbends and leg-lifts of such dexterity that I'm not sure how she remained upright, let alone how she continued to move her bow in a convincing fashion.

Each song followed a similar arc: a somber introductory section led to a chorus that built in intensity until a release of energetic beats and frenetic sixteenth-notes, delivered over synthesized accompaniment. Stirling made the point that her songs all bear a similar sound, meant to mirror her personal struggle with depression and how she overcame this malady by practicing positive thinking, just as she practiced dance or violin. This explanation came, mind you, as the trite segue into the song "Transcendence."

I spent some time before the concert talking to some attendees who seemed particularly excited. I expected to meet several young girls who were violinists or dancers and saw in Stirling someone to emulate. Rather, the unifying factor seemed to be that, regardless of age or gender, they found her on YouTube (most specifically mentioned the video for “Crystallize”) and felt connected to her music through its imagery and, subsequently, her affable personality. They seemed to agree the music was not more valuable than the dancing. As one sweet 10-year-old girl named Angela put it, “The dancing highlights what's good in the song and helps to tell the story.”

So, no, I didn't like the music. Its static nature and lack of development can only be described as banal. The music she plays does not require a high amount of skill. The melodic lines rarely venture beyond the notes contained in a major or minor triad, for instance, so an introductory improvisation class could teach any instrumentalist of intermediate ability to create something similar. Her use of the bow rarely goes beyond a lovely legato draw across the strings, avoiding the danger of bouncing off but eliminating any variance of textures. Most disappointing, runs and high notes rarely reach beyond the third position, ignoring the extreme highs that give the violin its incredible risk and reward. It is non-offensive music, played in a pretty way.

Still in the end, I enjoyed Lindsey Stirling's show, mostly because she has created a product that makes her fans happy. And it made me happy to be around people enjoying themselves so much. At least she holds her instrument beautifully, just like a dancer.

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