Rockridge cellist, 15, recalls White House performance
By Lou Fancher
If human attitudes were as simple to tune as are cellos, young musicians like Nicholas Reeves wouldn’t be extraordinary.
In a different world and in all but one respect, the 15-year-old Rockridge resident and member of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra would be rather commonplace. The singular exception to his normality wouldn’t be his rare presence as an African American boy engaged in the study and performance of classical music. The most unusual item on his résumé would be the Nov. 15 White House appearance he made as a part of a string quartet performing for first lady Michelle Obama and a roomful of Washington, D.C., dignitaries.
The quartet represented the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, one of 12 groups honored at the annual National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards. Nicholas and three other boys, named the “Perfect Fourth” quartet, performed the allegro vivace assai movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s “String Quartet no. 6 in F-minor, op. 80.”
Reeves, who prefers Nick to Nicholas, met the other boys during Sphinx’s summer music program. The two-week academy is essential to the nonprofit’s mission to reverse the underrepresentation of people of color in classical music.
“It was hard, but a lot of fun. For how hard it was, what I see were the friends I met. It made me feel less alone,” said Nick, a sophomore at Oakland Technical High School. “Being a person of color and a classical musician, it’s kind of rare, especially in the Bay Area, which is a surprise because it’s otherwise so diverse.”
His father, pharmacist Geoffrey Reeves, said his own upbringing included near-daily exposure to classical music, especially the work of Romantic composers whose pieces his mother played on the piano. He dabbled with guitar as a teenager and is picking up double bass — in part, inspired by his son.
“I try to model it by doing it myself: by listening to music,” Geoffrey Reeves said. “I tell Nick that he doesn’t need to worry about what people say. He has a gift: Do it because you love it. A teenager wants to be accepted, but you can’t let that stop you from dreaming.”
Nick said that he has more than dreams on his mind. Displaying a thoughtfulness beyond his years, he evaluates his White House appearance and the power of music. Meeting first lady Michelle Obama, he said, was “just as exciting” as it would have been to meet President Barack Obama.
“She’s done so much for kids,” he said.
Barack Obama’s election as president in 2004 is emblazoned on his memory.
“I was at home, everybody was watching,” he said. “It was ecstatic, amazing history. People take it for granted, but what a difference he makes. He’s one of the only presidents that more people can see themselves in. That’s the great thing.”
There’s racial division in the country, but music, he insisted, brings people together.
“If they try different music and hear it the right way, even classical, they can change what they thought before,” he said. “They can like the spirit of it.”
Nick was instantly attracted to a cello’s lower register when he first sampled different instruments as a first-grade student at the Black Pine Circle Day School in Berkeley. Now, playing with the youth orchestra, his school’s jazz combo New Language Quintet and the after-school strings club Stringnado, he said a cello’s projection is its top feature.
“My goal is to play California strong, with force,” he said. “Dramatic pieces on cello are like nothing else. Even if the cello isn’t vibrating, if you lean into it, you feel like you’re a part of it.” Hardest to achieve is coordinating his left and right hands when playing rapid passages. Easiest is capturing the expression of a composition.
He admires the strength of cellist Gautier Capucon and the graceful, expressive playing of William Cestari. But he’s also fond of rhythm and blues and likes the music and lyrics of hip-hop artists whose names are more familiar to his peers: the jazz-infused group A Tribe Called Quest and solo artists including D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar and others.
While performing at the White House, he said that keeping a steady tempo required full concentration.
“Playing those sixteenth-notes at cut time at the speed we were playing, it was almost a tremolo,” Nick said.
He isn’t usually nervous — ”I practice until it’s solid. I take deep breaths” — but at the White House, it was different.
“We were terrified,” he said. “But our chaperon told us that we control the room. If we stay calm and professional, people will connect to the piece.”
A YouTube video proves the audience connected, as a standing ovation greeted the end of their just under nine-minute performance.
Nick is already focused on upcoming gigs. After being selected by the National Awards committee and gaining visibility at the White House, the Perfect Four have been invited to perform with Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste, an internationally recognized, classically trained violin and viola hip-hop duo known as Black Violin.
“It’s at the National Association of Music Merchants convention in