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Tinsley's works mirror his past

September 22nd, 2006

By Matt Deegan

His charitable fund allows 42 underprivileged Charlottesville musicians to take private lessons and provides one-on-one tutoring for disadvantaged city students. He helped the University of Virginia host a professional woman’s tennis tournament. UVa even named a tennis center for him after he donated $1 million to help build it. If an “All-Charlottesville” team were to be drafted, who would get picked first – Boyd Tinsley, hometown author John Grisham or king of all things music, Dave Matthews?

The story of Matthews, a community-college dropout who bartended and reluctantly tried out his material at a local watering hole, Miller’s, is branded in local lore. His return to Charlottesville always prompts its retelling.

Matthews launched his music career here. However, Tinsley, the violinist in the Dave Matthews Band, laid his roots in Charlottesville and was first exposed to classical music in its school system.

His wife and two children still live in the city and he frequently makes local appearances to support classical music and tennis, his other passion. His charitable fund recently donated $75,000 to the city schools to finance private lessons, academic tutoring and equipment for tennis.

Laura Thomas, who became the director of the Charlottesville High School orchestra the year Tinsley graduated, said when she saw him tell Matt Lauer on “Today” about the immense impact the city schools had on his musical development, she almost started to cry.

“Not only is Boyd an inspiration because of his gift,” Thomas said, “but for the students to think he was sitting in the same seat as them - you just can’t buy that type of motivation.”

When Tinsley graduated from CHS in 1982, there were about eight string players in the orchestra. Now, there are 140, Thomas said.

“People make it out like [classical music] is some stuffy, inaccessible thing,” she said. “But it’s not just for the elite, it’s for everybody.”

Tinsley proves this, Thomas said. Her office even features a picture of her with Tinsley, the musician she calls “the anti-snob.”

The 42-year-old violinist is a valuable bridge from rock and pop culture to classical music.

“The worlds don’t usually intersect, but it’s great to have a role model like Boyd,” Thomas said. (With tonight’s concert looming, Tinsley could not be reached for comment.)

When Tinsley signed up for a music class at Walker Upper Elementary in 1975, he chose “strings” because he thought it meant he would be playing guitar. Tinsley, 6-foot-2 now and an imposing figure even in sixth grade, realized his mistake and selected the violin, the smallest string instrument offered, at 14 inches in length.

His prowess on the instrument was evident early, and he won a three-year scholarship from the Wednesday Music Club that included private lessons. His father would drop him off for a violin lesson at Ann Rodig’s house at 7:30 every Wednesday morning before school from 1978 to 1980.

“He was an energetic and devoted student, a real sweetheart,” Rodig recalled.

Tinsley’s big break came in high school when Isidor Saslav, a renowned violinist and concertmaster for the Baltimore Symphony at the time, came to Charlottesville with his wife, Ann, a pianist, to play for CHS students.

It was customary for the Saslavs to pre-arrange with schools to have a member of the school orchestra come onstage to play a short number with them. Sixteen-year-old Tinsley was the man on that night.

Saslav was impressed with his playing and was surprised when Tinsley told him backstage after the performance that he was not studying with anyone outside of school.

“Here’s a kid who’s not from a privileged family,” Ann Saslav said, “so I said to Isidor, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if he could come and live with us for the summer?’”

The Saslavs’ daughter would be away at piano camp, so Tinsley could stay in her room, Ann thought.

After getting his parents’ approval, Tinsley rode a bus from Charlottesville to Baltimore. He stayed at the Saslavs’ huge Victorian house in Mount Washington, Md., for about two months, eating Ann’s home cooking, practicing with Isidor every day and attending Baltimore Symphony practices.

“I’m not sure he’d ever seen a house that big,” Ann said. “He was such a polite young man.”

Isidor offered Tinsley the chance to continue studying with him, but he decided to return to Charlottesville, where he was accepted to the University of Virginia and fell into the jazz and rock scene. Tinsley wrote the Saslavs a thank-you note, but he lost touch with them after that. Ann and Isidor were busy touring thereafter and did not think to contact him.

Twenty years later, the Saslavs started getting phone calls from friends and relatives telling them their names were on CDs.

“We thought to ourselves, ‘We haven’t made a CD,’” Ann said.

Their friends and relatives were actually referring to CD booklets for the Dave Matthews Band. In them, Tinsley thanks the Saslavs for shaping his career.

“I was mind-blown that a one-time student is now a world icon,” Isidor said, his voice brimming with pride. “I’m proud to be a part of helping Boyd seize an opportunity.”

Soon after their revelation, the Saslavs contacted Tinsley and were given tickets and backstage passes to a DMB concert at the Starplex Amphitheatre in Dallas, close to where they now live.

“We sat next to groupies and we were the only people there over 60,” Ann said.

It was the Saslavs’ first and only rock concert. Used to tame classical concertos and their sober admirers, they marveled at the over-the-top commitment of Daveheads and the decibel level of the music.

“We couldn’t hear Boyd because he mixed in with all the other instruments,” Ann said.

After the show, the Saslavs reunited with Tinsley on the DMB tour bus.

“Boyd was this amazing-looking guy with dreadlocks and leather and all that,” Ann said. “We knew him as this quiet, skinny teenager.”

They chatted about each others’ families for about an hour over bottles of Perrier, and, after the conversation, Tinsley asked if they wanted to meet Matthews. He was shocked at their response.

“When we said ‘no,’ he couldn’t believe it,” Ann said. “We had no idea who he was so we were not interested to meet him.”

The Saslavs climbed out of the tour bus and were mobbed by Daveheads, making it a chore to get to their car.

“Some wanted to buy our backstage passes and someone wanted to buy my Perrier bottle, but I said, ‘No, I think I’ll finish drinking it,’” Ann said. “We don’t do this in the classical field. We have an elegant reception and nice food and then we go home.”

The couple was gratified to know that they had helped the nice young man from Charlottesville succeed.

“Boyd is part of a huge ambience of our lives,” Ann said. “We feel we are helping young children when we tour and play for them. Some people ask us, ‘Why do you play for children? Aren’t they loud and rowdy?’”

The John Paul Jones Arena may give Ann an answer tonight when it is filled to the brim with Daveheads.

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