Sphinx Virtuosi at Carnegie Hall Performance Review - A Night of Red, White, and Blue

On Wednesday, October 29th, 2014,  Carnegie Hall buzzed with a cacophony of classical music lovers, filling the lobby from wall to wall, ranging from a large, young school group fidgeting in their seats, to the seasoned subscribers gently making their way to their boxes. So many different worlds had been brought together to see and hear the music of an orchestra whose very mission was stated simply by the attendance of this mixed audience. The Sphinx Virtuosi Orchestra and Catalyst Quartet, founded by the Sphinx Organization in 1999 in Detroit, MI, is an eighteen strong string orchestra comprised of the country’s top Black and Latino soloists. They are a group of artists brought together by the organization’s founder and president, Aaron Dworkin, with the mission to “transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts.”

Currently less than 5% of musicians in professional orchestras are minorities, and the Sphinx Organization is making leaps and bounds to change that through its many outreach programs such as its Sphinx Junior and Senior Competitions, which is open to middle, high school and college aged students. They also provide educational outreach programs; Overture, which is a year long youth development program providing free violins and lessons to elementary school students in underserved communities, Sphinx Performance Academy, an intensive summer chamber music and solo performance program serving aspiring musicians of color who demonstrate aptitude toward classical music but lack resources and access, and Classical Connections, an in-school beginning-level interactive music curriculum focused on string instrument family and contributions by composers of color (sphinxmusic.org). The Sphinx Virtuosi and Catalyst Quartet is comprised entirely of the organization’s past competition winners, proving that diversity and skill can be banded together in harmony.

The Sphinx Ensemble

The theme of the night’s pieces: Americana – a collection of six classical string pieces written by American modern composers (all of whom were present for the performance) with the flare, lilt, and musical embodiment of the spirit of the United States of America. The ensemble beautifully displayed the spirit of American unity with red, white, and blue evening attire to accompany music which blended so well that I felt as though I were watching and hearing a living, breathing creature with pointed feathers and oddly shaped arms. Ensemble members were completely involved with their music, dancing side to side and bending to and fro with the flow of the music. The excitement and passion of each player could be seen and heard in the ease with which these artists played, which then translated into the performance itself with passionate and powerful pieces. What struck me most was that the orchestra was one; when a soloist’s measure came up, they did not step out or rise above, but the music was simply allowed to blossom until they joined the piece as a unit once more.

The Catalyst Quartet: (L) Jessie Montgomery, Karla Donehew Perez, Karlos Rodriquez, and Paul Laraia

The piece which stood out to me most was Marcus Goddard’s Allaqi, performed by the Catalyst Quartet, which is comprised of visiting teaching artists at the Sphinx Prepatory Music Institute. Since I am a film buff, I generally see music visually through pictures painted by the rise and fall of the music. With this piece I found myself going through an entire action horror movie - eerily perfect for the Halloween season – starting with the epic fight between mortal and monster when the violins and cello electrically danced over their minor notes with spikes and jumps spread throughout. The fight succumbed to strings being mysteriously plucked, building tension. Then witches seemed to creep out of the violins with long, luxuriously creepy lines that made it impossible not to see them flying about the hall. Major chords and sweeter melodies gave way to the idea of lovers finding each other after being separated in the turmoil, followed by the redemption of the monster with the quartet’s full, harmonious chords giving the feel of resolution at last. But the piece gave way to a new fear when the notes shifted back into sharp, minor hits that suggested a new danger was on the horizon, with undertones by the cello and spikes from the violins. A soft legato melody over the turbulence called out for us to remember our past mistakes, which was brought down in a final chase of runs and hurried strokes up until the ending of the piece. I was moved and enthralled by the quartet’s performance, forgetting to watch them and seeing only the notes lifted high into the room, painting this grand picture.

The Catalyst Quartet

Accompanying and providing a semi-solo performance was senior division first-place laureate of the 2014 Annual Sphinx Competition, Xavier Foley. The young double bassist gained his title by placing first in the competition, and graced the audience with a superbly executed performance of John B Hedges’ Raise Him, Praise Shout, a piece which highlighted some of the darker, slightly jazzy sides of church hymns through a freely moving piece with the ensemble supporting the bass solo parts. Foley was bent over his bass as if listening for the next note chosen by the instrument itself, and playing fluidly and passionately. The piece started somewhat solemn and was accompanied by building woven harmonies which freely danced around Foley’s solos, then waited patiently as Foley soaked up his free moving solo sections. About half way through the piece the music gained a recognizable time signature as well as stomping and thigh slapping to pepper in some other acoustics to the soloist. The unique power and devotion of Foley’s work was clearly translated in his performance and I look forward to future performances and compositions from this young artist.

The Sphinx Ensemble


Another guest soloist was the ever impressive first place laureate of the Junior Division of the Sphinx Competition (2012), Ade Williams. This 17 year old brilliant player stood in spotlight, tearing up the stage and her bow with her fury on John Corigliano’s Red Violin Caprices, transfixing the audience and keeping us on our toes throughout the piece. She danced and shook with the power of her own playing, and by the end of the piece some of her bow strings were hanging off the other end of the staff, making it very easy to see how and why she placed first in the competition.

Our country is one of extreme diversity with groups of people from literally all over the world, and the Sphinx Orchestra is a marvelous example of that diversity joined together into one body of music, rising and falling, dancing and filling the stage with its power. Having been a child of music myself who played flute through middle and high school, the Sphinx’s outreach mission is very moving and one of great importance. Without music a child’s life is simply lacking in both art and personal growth. It is something that not only strengthens the mind but the will and fire to do something with one’s life, something that is perfectly exemplified through the Sphinx’s collection of artists.

Before moving on in their tour, the Sphinx Orchestra and Catalyst Quartet plays once more tomorrow, Friday, October 31st at noon in Carnegie Hall. Tickets are available at carnegehall.org. I would highly suggest taking the afternoon to let their music, their passion, and their diversity move you. 

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