The Sphinx Virtuosi Review – Eat and Drink to the Beat at the Harris Theater

This week, I attended a unique performance with some of the most marvelous string musicians in the United States. The Sphinx Virtuosi, an orchestra comprised entirely of Black and Latino musicians, gave a dazzling performance at the Harris Theater at Millennium Park. The theme of the night was Eat and Drink to the Beat, which included an early show, “signature” Harris Theater cocktails and a few Chicago food trucks. Audience members were encouraged to eat and drink while enjoying the concert. While the cocktails were lackluster and expensive - $9 for a basic Jack Daniels and sour, aptly named “The Virtuoso” – the venue is exciting and the concept is fun. This performance is Americana, with the program boasting songs by American composers.

 

The Sphinx Virtuosi members are stunning as they walk on stage to applause, and when that roar dies down, a small shuffle and crinkle of wrappers permeates the still audience throughout the mostly empty theater. In a traditional show, this kind of noise might be disruptive, or even taboo, but I get it now. The food trucks, the drinks, the 5:30 time of the concert – this is a happy hour to open the door to American classics.

 

The theme of food trucks works well with the $5 general admission price. Here, you see people you might not normally encounter at a later performance. This, at least, is accessible to Americans. And not only the Americana elite, but it’s here for the blue grass, prairie-home-companion listener as well.

 

The first song, Elevations by Mark O’Connor, made me see (or hear) why this is such a good venue. From the 2nd tier, the sound is amazing. The tune is a good ol’ prairie rhythm that made me happy I had chosen a whiskey based cocktail. It was a fast, classical journey through the grand, sweeping landscapes of the U.S, finishing with a warm ending. The concert progressed into a darker, more urgent feel, rapidly turning corners like a Tim Burton movie.

 

The best part of the evening arrived in the middle, when the hand clapping, foot stomping hymn, Raise Hymn, Praise Shout by John B. Hedges, started. Tami Lee Hughes of the orchestra introduced the song, telling the audience it was okay to clap, to tap or stomp. “What happens in this concert, stays in this concert,” she told us. The song was actually two parts, the slow, solemn hymn and the loud and fast barking shout with African American musical roots.

 

The highlight of this – and the entire evening – was bass soloist Xavier Foley, who made his motions as moody as the notes, dragging his arm over his bass in long, exaggerated pulls.  Head and shoulders stooped, Foley played the kind of solo that touches you in the lower belly, and brings up a growl in your throat. Slow and reservoir deep, he went low and the strings hummed. The song went up and they clapped in response to the bass, before it fell way down, down, down…

 

The Catalyst Quartet played Allaqi by Marcus Goddard next, and I have to admit, they really brought me somewhere with this song. In fact, it was my favorite. It almost made me cry from its softness and the drama of the cellist matched the drama of the crescendos. The final piece, Banner by company violinist Jessie Montgomery, was a long interpretation of the Star Spangled Banner, the true American pride song. It was clear the Americana theme culminated here, as the full virtuosi played hard and fast. Or, perhaps, the whole show was built around this performance. Montgomery’s piece is surprising, with the musicians making unexpected sounds with their very traditional instruments: records rips, slaps, and drum kicks – all from strings. While this wasn’t my favorite, it was original.

 

There is such an interesting juxtaposition going on with The Sphinx Virtuosi: Here we have this troupe of minorities who are so defiantly under-represented in most American Orchestras, and yet they proclaim Americana through their music. Indeed, according to the League of American Orchestras, less than 5 percent of the musicians in the nation’s professional orchestras are Black or Latino. It’s a desperate call to see the truth about American music, performers, artists, composers, etc. You end up asking yourself, why so white? Here they are. Where are you?

 

To find out more about The Sphinx Virtuosi and upcoming performances, visit their website

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