Review: Sphinx Virtuosi Bring an Intriguing Vision to Carnegie Hall
“Tracing Visions” was the intriguing title of the program Sphinx Virtuosi, an ensemble of 18 top-notch string players who are Black and Latino …
“Tracing Visions” was the intriguing title of the program Sphinx Virtuosi, an ensemble of 18 top-notch string players who are Black and Latino, presented at Carnegie Hall on Friday. As Afa S. Dworkin, the president of Sphinx, explained in comments to the audience, that phrase spoke both to the organization’s mission and the music played so impressively on this night.
You have to have a vision, to conceive one carefully, before you can write it out and realize it, Dworkin suggested. Sphinx began in 1997 as a “social justice organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts,” an ambitious mission statement more essential at this moment than ever. Based in Detroit but with nationwide reach to some 100,000 students and artists, Sphinx puts string instruments in the hands of children and provides them training; sponsors a national competition that awards stipends, scholarships and performance opportunities; and has a development project for emerging artists, among other initiatives.
Sphinx Virtuosi, which is in the midst of a national tour, is the most prestigious outlet of the organization; and the splendid performances showed why. A beguiling account of the opening work, Xavier Foley’s “Ev’ry Voice,” set a reflective tone. The music is like an episodic rumination on “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the “Black national anthem.” At first, segments of the melody are played in tentative, harmonically rich strands. Then, while violins ascend to high, softly tender lines, in lower registers other strings begin stirring, as if to get this piece up and running. There are passages of bustling riffs, hard-edge chords, a burst of swing and, finally, a fanfare. This led to Florence Price’s wistfully lyrical Andante cantabile movement from her 1935 String Quartet No. 2, which came across with glowing richness in this version for string ensemble.
Various players took turns introducing works. One member explained that the Brazilian violinist and composer Ricardo Herz had adapted “Mourinho,” a bracing dance song in the Brazilian forró style, especially for Sphinx. Since the original was alive with percussion, the string players here slap and tap their instruments to evoke the rhythms that capture the festive vibe of the music, as indeed they did in this arresting performance.
The Cuban American cellist Thomas Mesa spoke at some length before playing Andrea Casarrubios’s “Seven” for solo cello, a searching, intense and elegiac tribute to essential workers during the pandemic. The title alludes to the communal ritual of applauding, shouting and banging pots and pans every night at 7 p.m. for those heroes. Mesa played it magnificently.
Jessie Montgomery’s “Banner,” which received its New York premiere by Sphinx Virtuosi at Carnegie in 2014, has become almost her signature piece. The music takes “The Star-Spangled Banner” and explores, fractures, transforms and comments upon the tune and its complex associations. Scored for a solo string quartet both with and against a background string ensemble, the piece received a vibrant, assured performance here.
The charismatic bass-baritone Davóne Tines was the soloist in the two next pieces: The British composer Gerald Finzi’s “Come away, come away, death,” a sternly beautiful musical setting of a Shakespeare poem (from the song cycle “Let Us Garlands Bring”); and Carlos Simon’s “Angels in Heaven,” an arrangement of a spiritual sung during baptisms (“I know I’ve been changed”). Tines invited the audience to join in the final refrains of the church song. Many members of this audience clearly knew it well, judging from the vigor of the response.
The program ended with the breathless, wild and wailing “Finale furioso” from Alberto Ginastera’s Concerto for Strings. The prolonged ovation that followed was no surprise.