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Violinist Melissa White Combines Fashion and Live Performance

White will wear a custom dress by artist Carley Brandeaux, marking the first time in the industry that a garment was designed specifically as part of a violin soloist's performance


This weekend, the Chicago Sinfonietta will present their 2021-22 season-closing concert, Limitless Horizon. In it, violinist Melissa White will perform the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, co-composed by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao.

Combining avante-garde fashion and celebrated music, White will debut a dress made by North Carolina-native sculptor and designer Carley Brandeaux.

The Violin Channel recently spoke with Brandeaux and White to get an inside look at this unique, collaborative project.

When asked how the project came to be, Brandeaux explained that she was called in late 2019 by the Luminarts Cultural Foundation. Along with Chicago Sinfonietta, they invited her to design a butterfly-inspired garment for a violinist, which she called a "dream commission."

Meanwhile, Melissa White was asked to perform the piece with the ensemble in 2020. However, once COVID-19 hit, the concert was delayed until this coming weekend.

The pair explained that the dress is a "living work of art," designed specifically to be a visual part of the performance. As Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto progresses, the dress will transform and reveal more of itself throughout.

As for the garment's inspiration, Brandeaux recalls that during a hike outside of Chicago, she saw the American Painted Lady butterfly. Influenced by its markings, colors, and movements, the dress will reveal itself much like a butterfly's development — starting with a chrysalis, then unwrapping to reveal the adult butterfly.


American Painted Lady butterfly


"I have loved every step of this project," said White. "I feel like it helps the piece come alive even more because of the visual component. Aside from the music, the visual element will be a unique experience that the audience gets to live in real-time. And to me, that's the true essence of art: it involves everyone participating in the experience."

Regarding Brandeaux's creative process, the designer listened to the music in addition to watching videos of White playing — to better understand the practicalities involved in designing clothes for a violinist.

For example, White explained that her left shoulder has to be unobstructed since that is where she holds the violin. In addition, she prefers when the garments are not too heavy and for her arms to feel free and unconstricted.


Melissa White in the dress in its beginning stages, pre-painting


Inspired by the different note lengths in the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, Brandeaux said she wanted to use different lengths of fabric. In addition, she searched for different types of material that would respond to White's movements while playing.

Made of hand-painted dupioni silk and a "one of a kind" linen/rayon blend, woven by Emily Winter at Chicago's own The Weaving Mill, the dress does just that.


Carley Brandeaux working on the dress


After multiple fittings and alteration sessions, one of which being the dress rehearsal, White said that Brandeaux had "done all of my favorite things with this dress."

While garments have been designed for musicians of all sorts, this is believed to be the first time a creation has been designed to be part of a violin soloist's performance.

"Now more than ever, I wish art was pushing the boundaries and going outside of the box like this," White added. "I feel like the world needs to see more art instead of all the news headlines."


A sketch of the dress' final product


To see the culmination of this project, audiences can get tickets to the Limitless Horizon concerts here. The first concert at Wentz Concert Hall will be on May 14 at 8 PM CST, while the second performance will be at the Symphony Center at 7:30 PM CST.



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