Violist Ashleigh Gordon has performed around the world, from Hong Kong’s Lee Hysan Concert Hall to Paris’ Centre Pompidou. But she also enthralls audiences in elementary schools and the Roxbury YMCA. She’s the artistic director and co-founder of Castle of Our Skins, a local concert and educational series that celebrates black artistry through music. Named after the opening line of Nikki Giovanni’s “Poem (for Nina),” Castle of Our Skins is set to begin its fifth season of concerts featuring music by black composers, which will kick off with string quartet performances at the Museum of African American History on Aug. 25 as part of the Highland Street Foundation’s Free Fun Fridays. It also leads educational workshops, like one called Ella Scats the Little Lamb that encourages kindergarteners to make some noise of their own. “It uses a piece by Valerie Capers called Portraits in Jazz that riffs on ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and teaches kids how to scat sing in homage to Ella Fitzgerald,” Gordon explains.
Gordon also works with young people through Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Intensive Community Program, which provides high-quality string instrumental instruction to students from communities often underrepresented in classical music. While only a few students have pursued careers in music, all graduates of the program have enrolled in college. “They have a small, close-knit class and a very strong community that takes them from youth through high school. The feeling of family and community and discipline is embedded from an early age, and it’s quite special to see,” Gordon says. It’s a program that’s left its mark on her as well. “So many parents whose students I didn’t even interact with came up to me and said that my sheer presence as a black woman teacher meant a great deal to them. That sort of jump-started my thinking on how I can use my position as a black woman violist to highlight diversity and promote representation within my field.”
“For my current mood, I would have to say Nina Simone. Shortly after the election, there was a lot of initiative within the arts community about ways of responding and how we can do what we do in solidarity, how we can do what we do in protest. I was just really struck by the call to action and sense of urgency that Nina Simone would speak on on behalf of artists. There is no better time than now to reflect your community and your society and be responsive. You have a duty as an artist, as a creative, to influence, take charge and be vocal.”