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Sphinx Virtuosi and Catalyst Quartet are on a Mission
Sphinx Virtuosi and Catalyst Quartet at Carnegie Hall
By Vivien Schweitzer / The New York Times
October 15, 2015
Lack of diversity is a problem in various art forms: the recent appointment of Misty Copeland as the first African-American principal dancer of the American Ballet Theater highlighted the homogeneity of classical dance. One of Ms. Copeland’s goals is to expand the audience for ballet and, she has said, “to see more people that look like me on the stage, in the school and in the audience.” The admirable Sphinx Organization has a similar aim: to increase diversity in the classical music world.
There has certainly been progress since 1961, when government officials in Birmingham, Ala., tried to ban the African-American cellist Donald White from performing in a concert with the Cleveland Orchestra. But blacks and Hispanics are still woefully underrepresented in orchestras and concert halls. Sphinx hopes to remedy the situation by providing free training and instruments as well as opportunities to perform with the organization’s ensembles.
The Sphinx Virtuosi, a string group, performed at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday evening as part of its annual tour. The concert, called “Inspiring Women,” was dedicated to female composers and historical figures. It opened with a propulsive, richly hued interpretation of “String” from Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra, which demonstrated the ensemble’s polish and tonal allure. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “Rosa Parks Symphony,” a tribute to the civil rights activist, featured wailing, passionate violin declarations over ominous, rumbling lower strings — material that, while engaging, didn’t prove substantial enough for a whole movement. The second movement, “Klap Ur Handz,” sounded rather simplistic.
The Catalyst Quartet offered a dynamic performance of Joan Tower’s lyrical, melancholic “In Memory,” inspired by the death of a friend and the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Gabriela Lena Frank’s meandering “Cuentos Errantes: Four New Folk Songs” for orchestra, in which Ms. Frank played the piano part, was inspired by Peruvian culture and featured lively sound effects that evoked traditions like the whistling Huayno.
The concert included a short video presentation and comments by Afa S. Dworkin, recently appointed Sphinx’s artistic director. A highlight of the evening was the terrific performance by the 15-year-old violinist Hannah White of the “Ballade” from Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3. Her technical dexterity and expressive flair earned an enthusiastic ovation.
O Say Can You Hear?
Sphinx Virtuosi and Catalyst Quartet at Carnegie Hall
By Anthony Tommasini / The New York Times
October 30, 2014
Many composers would have been wary of a commission to write a tribute to the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Think of the potential traps. Do you write something suggestive of patriotism? Do you attempt to convey the gulf between the anthem’s aspirations and the historical realities of slavery and injustice?
The young violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery was offered this commission by theSphinx Organization, founded in 1996 by Aaron P. Dworkin to promote diversity within classical music by training black and Latino students. An alumna of Sphinx, Ms. Montgomery readily accepted the challenge, writing an urgent, inventive piece titled “Banner” for Sphinx Virtuosi, the group’s ensemble of 18 string players, all prizewinning alumni.
Each spring these select musicians come together for a national tour, including a stop at Carnegie Hall, where on Wednesday night the Sphinx Virtuosi, along with the Catalyst Quartet (the four principal players from the ensemble, including Ms. Montgomery) ended this year’s 14-city tour. “Banner,” scored for a string quartet and string ensemble, concluded a rewarding 90-minute program of recent American works.
Ms. Montgomery’s solution to the tribute challenge was simply to claim the piece unabashedly as a composer and an American and let her imagination lead her. She structured the work, as she explained to the audience, in the manner of marching-band music, with a stretch of contrasting episodes and a heady finale. She daringly transforms the anthem, folding it into a teeming score that draws upon American folk and protest songs, and anthems from around the world, including Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban, to create a musical melting pot.
Fragments of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are used as motifs to generate an organic, hazy introduction. In one extended section, the music breaks into sputtering rhythms and scratching sounds. Now and then, a fleeting passage from the anthem emerges in plush harmonies, like a cosmic chorale. Over all, the multilayered busyness of the music draws you in, especially in this rhapsodic performance.
The Catalyst Quartet, whose other players are the violinist Karla Donehew-Perez, the violist Paul Laraia and the cellist Karlos Rodriguez, were also excellent on their own in Marcus Goddard’s atmospheric “Allaqi” for string quartet.
John B. Hedges composed “Raise Hymn, Praise Shout” to feature the brilliant bass player Xavier Foley, the first bassist to win the annual Sphinx competition. This inventive piece evokes an African-American church service with the bass as preacher and the string ensemble as the congregation.
The violinist Adé Williams, 17, a 2013 competition winner, had John Corigliano’s impetuous “Red Violin Caprices” all to herself and played it stunningly. The accomplished Sphinx Virtuosi also offered Gabriela Lena Frank’s pungent, folkloric “Coqueteos” and Mark O’Connor’s “Elevations, II,” with its bursts of country fiddling folded into music of plush harmonies and intricate textures.
During a break, Mr. Dworkin shared some encouraging numbers with the audience: Through its various programs, Sphinx is reaching some 80,000 young people from 60 cities in 30 states.
Sphinx Virtuosi Concert
October 14, 2014
On Wednesday, October 22, 2014, I was luck enough to experience on the finest chamber music orchestra, Sphinix Virtuois with Catalyst Quartet as they Tour in their Americana program. The young dynamic troupe is a professional chamber orchestra and theonly all-Black and Latino string orchestra in America. This 18 person is a a one month tour is an homage to The Star Spangled Banner as member and composer-in-residence premieres a new work titled Banner as an ode to our beloved anthem. The unique sounds made by strings (violins, viola, cello and bass) were made to emulate a marching band sans the brass. That piece was the high point to the 45 minute concert that also featured works by young American composers. The gospel sounds from John B. Hedges captured the essence of Black Christian rhythms.
What impressed me most by the Sphinx Virtuois was their vibrant and energetic musicianship that featured their complete skill set. These artists are fantastic talents that have arrived as world class musicians. After witnessing their talent, their artistic innovations, and their commitment to their craft, I can see that the future of classical music is in good hands with these major talents.
While I don’t cover much chamber music concerts due to my emphasis on theatre and opera, seeing these most engaging artists makes me realize that Ineed cover more chamber music, especially when it comes from Sphinix Virtuosi. They impress all and they introduce youngsters and minorities to the wonders of classical music.
Kudos to the Harris Theatre for their ‘Eat to the Beat’ Series. They have more in that series ; next up is Puerto Rican Arts Alliance November 7, 2014 at Noon at the Harris Theater. To learn more click here: http://www.harristheaterchicago.org/events/2014-2015-season/etb1–sphinx-virtuos
It was a pleasure to witness the fabulous Sphnix Virtuois, they are special. it is wonderful to see artists at the top of their art!
Sphinx Virtuosi review: Glimpsing classical music’s future
By Brett Campbell / Oregon Artswatch
October 14, 2014
Before they’d even played a note at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Detroit’s Sphinx Virtuosi had already blasted through three of the barriers separating classical music from contemporary relevance. First, they dared to play an entire program of music by Americancomposers (including a world premiere), all but one of them (Aaron Copland) still living, breathing, and writing music. Exclusively presenting creations from our own time and place would be unremarkable in any other art form, of course, but in the not-coincidentally shriveling classical music establishment, it’s still too rare.
Second, the musicians arrayed on stage were neither old nor white. Sphinx consists of 18 young African- and Latino-American classical musicians — communities terribly underrepresented at Oregon classical music concerts.
Third, the musicians actually respected their audience, moving briskly and purposefully to their music stands and rather than shuffling score pages around were playing music within a few seconds of hitting the stage. Later, two members spoke engagingly to the audience in an easygoing way that suggested both serious preparation yet natural spontaneity.
The only question that remained as the downbeat approached: could they deliver a performance as musically compelling as their concept was politically correct?
Celebrating the first decade anniversary of its Carnegie Hall debut (the first of 11), the chamber orchestra comprises young classical performers who’ve studied at the country’s top music schools and played with its finest orchestras. They opened with music of another virtuoso classical music outsider, fiddle phenom Mark O’Connor, whose 2011 “Elevations” (written for recent Portland visitor Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s New Century Chamber Orchestra) launched the show to a flying start, until the Appalachian-inflected suite spiraled down after its musical ideas ran out of gas just short of its destination a dozen minutes later.
The group followed with another piece meant to evoke a picturesque journey, “Voyage,” one of the most popular works of one of America’s greatest living composers, John Corigliano. Though played (like the O’Connor) with real commitment and skill, the music itself seemed content to portray a relatively uneventful excursion. I’d have much preferred to start (or end) this journey with the next piece, the bustling “Coquetteos,” from Peruvian American composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s more colorful 2001 trip, Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, where the group’s mastery of rhythmic propulsion finally got a chance to cut loose.
The excitement generated there proved only a prelude to the first-half closer, “Raise Hymn, Praise Shout,” a Sphinx commission from Philadelphia-based composer John B. Hedges that draws on the African American church music tradition. The leisurely first movement casts the bass soloist (here, the prize-winning Xavier Foley) as a preacher engaged in a dialogue with the “congregation” of improvising strings, while the prayerful second section uses material from the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” swaddled in a sort of humming chorus. The third movement raved up the classic call-and-response gospel shout chorus between preacher and congregation. The electrifying Foley’s blistering performance propelled the band through the piece’s occasional languors, ending the first half on a joyous note.
The Catalyst Quartet (Sphinx’s four principals) opened the second half with superlative performance of Vancouver B.C. composer Marcus Goddard’s rousing “Allaqi” (the Inuit term for a clearing in the sky), whose complex meters and unusual textures only enhanced the richness of an award winning work composed for the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The full orchestra returned for a lovely performance of Copland’s early (1926) “Two Pieces for String Orchestra”: The jazzy rhythms and forward-looking harmonies and colors combined to create potent brew that reaffirms just how much glorious music America’s greatest composer made before his “Americana” phase.
Copland, a strong advocate of new music by American composers who fiercely criticized the already creeping conservatism that began suffocating classical music in the first half of the last century, would have heartily approved of the inclusion of Sphinx composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery’s 2014 world premiere, “Banner,” a rhapsody on the theme of “The Star Spangled Banner” (whose 200th anniversary it celebrates) that put the Catalyst Quartet front and center. Inventively weaving themes from the American anthem with those from seven other “nations” (some unofficial, like James Weldon Johnson’s “black national anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing”), even including a mariachi moment, Montgomery’s composition (which employed some surprising string extended effects and other modern devices) cleverly cast an early 19th-century anthem (and even older tune) in a 21st century multicultural context, avoiding simple sentimentality while somehow capturing its original exultation. It actually would have made a splendid opener (as national anthems so often are) but thanks to Sphinx’s committed, clearly thoroughly rehearsed performance, it worked just fine as a capper on one of the most enjoyable, well-played and involving concerts I’ve attended all year. It toppled another common barrier to classical music enjoyment: dull, insufficiently rehearsed performances.
It’s a shame so few Portlanders heard it; Lincoln Performance Hall was only about half full, and while the sponsor, Portland State University’s College of the Arts and its dean, Robert Bucker, deserves high praise for bringing the group to Oregon, I bet the turnout would have been higher had it been co-sponsored by one of the city’s classical music presenting organizations. Now that Sphinx has proven that new music, what we delicately call “non-traditional” performers, and first-rate, listener-pleasing performances can inhabit the same stage so successfully, I hope more Oregonians will get a chance to experience the future of classical music soon.
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.