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Review: Sphinx Virtuosi at Kennedy Center
By Cecelia H. Porter / The Washington Post
November 8, 2013
Winning financial support and even basic encouragement for the arts is often a tough call. But a unique group of young professional musicians has found both through the Detroit-based Sphinx Competition, founded in 1996. The uniqueness of this annual contest is its focus solely on talented young black and Latino string players residing in the United States. Top alumni of the competition go on to form their own professional ensembles, spreading their art across the country.
One set of “graduates” is the 18-member Sphinx Virtuosi, who performed conductor-less at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Thursday under the sponsorship of the Washington Performing Arts Society. Overall, the Virtuosi’s playing combined zest, attention to detail, tight ensemble and glistening or deeply amorous tone quality, as the music called for. These high standards held fast despite the diversity of the evening’s program, ranging from two major works of Johann Sebastian Bach (some of his Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, plus his Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, BWV 1051), and Benjamin Britten’s rambunctious Simple Symphony, Op. 4, to some Astor Piazzolla tangos and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s “Louisiana Blues Strut: A Cakewalk.”
True to their name, the Sphinx Virtuosi call up the vision of an iconic mythological feline with its immeasurable power, unwavering command and soulful beauty. All in all, Motor City’s Sphinx Competition clearly exemplifies money and time well invested.
Thoughtful string program from Sphinx Virtuosi
By Stephen Brookes / The Washington Post
October 11, 2012
The gifted young musicians known as the Sphinx Virtuosi are an intriguing group: They’re all laureates of the Sphinx Competition for young black and Latino string players, which is dedicated to developing diversity in classical music. They arrived at the Terrace Theater on Wednesday night as part of the Fortas Chamber Music series and presented a program of largely Latin American music that was beautifully played — and, frankly, a refreshing counterpoint to the pallid menu of Bruckner, Beethoven and other low-risk composers being wholesaled at the Kennedy Center this season.
In fact, some of the most fiery and flavorful music of the past century has come out of Latin America, and the Sphinx players (joined by the Catalyst Quartet) made a good case for bringing more of it into the mainstream. It might have been a mistake to open with Heitor Villa-Lobos’s drippy, Europe-aping “Suite for Strings,” but the ensemble dispatched it with reasonable haste and taste and quickly moved on to meatier fare.
Cellist Gabriel Cabezas got the adrenaline flowing with a furious, loose-limbed performance of “Moto Perpetuo,” from “Lamentations for Solo Cello” by African American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and the Catalyst Quartet took the stage for Osvaldo Golijov’s “Tenebrae.” It’s a meditative work whose floating mists and cosmic ambiguities can, in the wrong hands, seem like music to do yoga by, but the Catalyst players turned in a serious, convincing account.
The tone shifted from dark to light when the quartet launched into “Strum,” a hugely enjoyable new work by Sphinx violinist Jessie Montgomery. Turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life, “Strum” sounded like a handful of American folk melodies tossed into a strong wind, cascading and tumbling joyfully around one another. Montgomery also wrote the evening’s encore, “Star-burst”; at 30, she’s an inventive and appealing composer with interesting things ahead of her.
An electrifying performance of Alberto Ginastera’s “Finale Furioso” from his Concerto for Strings closed the concert, but it was the “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” by the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla that really stole the show. Or rather, it was violin soloist Elena Urioste who stole it. A drop-dead beauty who plays with equal parts passion, sensuality, brains and humor, Urioste tossed off the work’s captivating tangos and sly quotes of Vivaldi almost flirtatiously, as the Sphinx players provided precise and electrical accompaniment. It was an exciting and virtually flawless performance that brought the audience to its feet.
Sphinx Virtuosi Awaken the Past Stanford Lively Arts
By David Bratman / San Francisco Classical Voice
October 19, 2011
The Sphinx Virtuosi, whose performance on Wednesday was the first Dinkelspiel Auditorium concert in Stanford Lively Arts' season, is a conductor-less 18- member string orchestra of young professional players. It's sponsored by the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based nonprofit group whose purpose is to increase the participation of Blacks and Latinos in classical music.
As an exercise in overcoming cultural stereotypes, Wednesday's concert workedboth ways. No presumption that special programs for minorities will lead to over promotion of the under qualified could survive listening to this group. It is an orchestra of complete professionalism and winning personality. The program included both an Afro-American and Latin American composers; however, the proof of these performers' commitment and understanding of the field of music they've entered was in their renditions of works by the old masters.
This was especially true considering that those old masters were Mozart and Bach, two composers that are particularly difficult to play well. Mozart's music is open and clear, leaving nothing for performers to hide behind. Bach's is intricately constructed and needs a special touch to bring it to life. These succeeded. The key to this performance of Mozart's Divertimento in D, K. 136, was rhythmic vitality. The cellos, basses, and violas chugged through their parts with the kind of vigor and flexibility that makes this charming piece go.
Above that, the violins floated with the slightest touch of unease. Their tone was only partially resonant, not assisted by the dull acoustics of the back seats in Dinkelspiel; their bounce was not quite as crisp as the lower instruments'; and the melodic lines did not always fully flesh out. Nevertheless, they were capable and charming. In their hands, Mozart's music lived.
The same was true, more arrestingly, of Bach. This selection was the Ricercar à 6 from The Musical Offering, in a realization for strings by Gustav Lenzewski. In place of the bold clarity of Mozart, the sound was a slippery sliding thing, eerily dropping its way through the overlapping counterpoint, and only partially explainable by the almost total lack of vibrato.
Chamber Orchestra featuring the Catalyst Quartet
By Timothy H. Lindeman
October 7, 2011 - Greensboro, NC:
Rhythmic vitality and terrific ensemble characterized this performance of the 18-strong Sphinx Virtuosi. Perhaps the absence of a conductor explains the tight-knit ensemble work as well as the sense of democratic music making in which each musician must take personal responsibility for his/her performance. This group of “top alumni of the national Sphinx Competition for young Black and Latino string players” delighted the large audience in Aycock Auditorium on the UNCG campus.
The diverse program included familiar composers Bartók, Bach, and Schubert, the less-well-known Ginastera and Nyman, and the obscure. The evening opened with one such composer, Venezuelan Juan Bautista Plaza (1898-1965). His 1931 Fuga Criolla (originally for string quartet and titled Fugue on Venezuelan Folk Melodies) is infused with dance rhythms, which induced good energy from the ensemble. The last movement of Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings provided more folk influence, albeit from a different continent. Solos from individual players contrasted nicely with the larger group as the music dove through changes of tempo and meter, all in perfect synch, no mean task.
A passacaglia by Handel arranged by Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) gave violinist Danielle Belen and violist Paul Laraia a virtuoso showpiece. Belen (not officially a member of the ensemble) is the winner of the 2008 Sphinx Competition; Laraia is part of the band. A passacaglia features a short recurring figure, which provides a great scaffolding over which to explore harmonics, double stops, pizzicato playing — the works. Belen and Laraia reveled in the challenges and dove in head first, each playing off the other’s energy.
Four of the ensemble’s principal players, violinists Bryan Hernandez-Luch and Karla Donehew-Perez, violist Christopher Jenkins, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez, comprise the Catalyst Quartet, which performed two numbers. The first movement of Michael Nyman’s String Quartet No. 2 (1988) combines elements of minimalism with a rock aesthetic in a virtuoso setting. The finale Furioso movement, from Argentinean Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26 (1958), certainly shows Bartók's influence, but through a South American prism. This music is “in your face” seething, frantic and fabulous fun.
The second half of the concert began with “dueling quartets” in the guise of Osvaldo Golijov’s 1996 Last Round for two String quartets and double bass. The two movements, written as homage to Argentinean Astor Piazzolla (1921-92), are influenced by tango and pop music. Unfortunately, the instruments of the one of the quartets faced away from the audience, creating a lopsided aural experience. Alla Burletta, the third movement of Generations Sinfonietta No. 2, by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), featured lots of pizzicato playing in this short playful romp. The web of counterpoint in the Ricercare a 6 by J.S. Bach was cleanly etched out.
The evening concluded with the last movement of Franz Schubert’s "Death and the Maiden” string quartet as partially arranged by Gustav Mahler (scholars have subsequently completed the arrangement using Mahler’s notes). This furious gallop perfectly ended an evening of animated and vigorous music-making. The Sphinx Virtuosi came to Greensboro as part of a multi-day educational program organized by Peeler Open Elementary School string teacher Marta Richardson. Under the auspices of the Classical Music Across Cultures Projects, the members of the ensemble performed for close to 2000 students throughout the Guilford County school system and at UNCG.
Sphinx Virtuosi a blast of style and talent
Tue, 10/4/2011 - 11:29pm — Elliot Mandel / CHICAGO CLASSICAL MUSIC
Oct 5, 2011
The musicians of the Sphinx Virtuosi strode onto Chicago’s Harris Theater stage Sunday afternoon with a stylish swagger that betrayed the exuberance of their music. A chamber orchestra without a conductor, the Sphinx is made up of alumni of the national Sphinx Competition for young Black and Latino string players. The Detroit-based Sphinx Organization has been promoting ethnic diversity in American orchestral music for 15 years while producing top-rate musicians, some of whom were on display in a program perfectly designed to showcase their virtuosity and youthful energy.
In what would be a stylistic trademark throughout the concert, the Sphinx attacked the Allegro of Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings with rhythmic precision and a strong sense of spirit. The furious string playing gave way to the delicate viola opening of Bach’s Ricercare in six voices from the Musical Offering. Though the ensemble exhibited a fine awareness of balance throughout one of the most complex fugues Bach ever wrote, it had to compete with a few noisy latecomers.
In his “Last Round for Two String Quartets and Doublebass,” Osvaldo Golijov displays his dual affections for Bach and Astor Piazzolla, striking a balance of complex texture and tango rhythms. Again, the Sphinx musicians rose to the challenges as if they had been playing nothing but tangos throughout their young careers. Facing each other on stage, the two quartets danced and traded punches, approximating the tense strains of the bandoneon over Eric Thompson’s sturdy pulse in the bass.
Sharing the stage with the Sphinx Virtuosi was a trio of young soloists who raised the caliber of the whole program in three pieces. Joining the Sphinx chamber orchestra, violinist Alexandra Switala infused Vivaldi’s “Summer,” from the Four Seasons with unabashed emotion and technical acuity. Violinist Randall Goosby and cellist Gabriel Cabezas traded solo turns in the Passacaglia for Violin and Cello by Handel and Halvorsen. Though the cello overpowered the violin in this performance, both musicians showed off masterful articulation and a sense of drama. Goosby returned to perform Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s “Jettin’ Blues” from Blue/s Forms, a piece for solo violin that includes motifs of American
In a program of overflowing energy, the Catalyst Quartet—another branch of the Sphinx Organization--performed single movements from the second quartets of Michael Nyman and Alberto Ginastera, each with relentless rhythmic force.
The entire ensemble returned for the final movement of Schubert’s quartet, Death and the Maiden, arranged for string orchestra by Mahler. A blistering piece as a quartet, the galloping speed poses a greater challenge in a larger group; the Sphinx showcased yet again their impressive ensemble work and articulation.
For all the up-tempo music on the afternoon’s concert, one wanted a chance to take a breath with an occasional adagio, but it’s hard to fault a program for what it is not. The audience left with the impression of some highly talented, confident, and stylish young musicians. In many ways, the Sphinx Organization is a response to the oft-maligned image of classical music as stodgy, old, elitist, and white. If Sunday’s concert was any indication of the future, we music lovers will have plenty of reason to applaud.