The Sphinx Virtuosi—a professional chamber orchestra comprising 18 of the nation’s top Black and Latinx classical musicians who are primarily alumni of the internationally renowned Sphinx Competition—performs its “Tracing Visions” at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, April 3 at 1:30 p.m. The tour is part of the Sphinx Organization’s 25th-anniversary celebrations with the members and programming reflecting the Detroit-based social justice organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.
Members of the Sphinx Virtuosi work together as cultural ambassadors reaching new audiences through annual tours. A bit of a musical archeology project, “Tracing Visions” features composer, double bass player, and Sphinx alum Xavier Foley’s arrangement of the “Black National Anthem,” Ev’ry Voice; 2020 Sphinx Medal of Excellence recipient Jessie Montgomery’s Banner commissioned by Sphinx and premiered in 2014; Andrea Casarrubios’ Seven honoring the heroes who fought to save lives during the pandemic, featuring soloist and Sphinx Competition Laureate, cellist Thomas Mesa; Ginastera’s Concerto for Strings; as well as gospel and Brazilian dance music. The ensemble first took this program on tour in Fall 2021, marking the first live performances since the pandemic brought live concert events to a standstill. Reflecting on the Sphinx Virtuosi being back on tour, Sphinx President and Artistic Director Afa S. Dworkin paid tribute to the musicians’ perseverance during dark moments:
“There is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it. Many may remember these poignant words spoken by Amanda Gorman, the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, at the most recent presidential inauguration. There is always light, indeed, and bravery is something we all aspire to have. It took true courage for these artists to keep shining their light, to keep speaking their truth, extending their hearts and voices during these unprecedented times. Their voices may have been muted for a moment as our world was shook to its core by the raw injustice and anguish over division and fear of a wounded yesterday and uncertain tomorrow. But their sense of duty to that which is greater than their own pain or pride is to be celebrated. Our artists stepped up in numbers, mounting digital projects that uplifted not their own music but that of one another. We saw a 60% participation increase across our programs and a more than 900% growth in online audiences, which was driven and reflected by the Sphinx familia. Dozens of albums illuminating the heritage of Black and Brown composers, multiple articles in the national press, half a million dollars giving life to new initiatives that advance inclusion in our industry, 20 digital performances and 66 million across the globe being touched by their music, their work, their light.”
“We named our program ‘Tracing Visions,’ because before we are strong enough to write, we trace a vision, of true unity, harmony and justice. These musicians and contemporary composers are the bright stars of today and tomorrow, but their light was ignited by so many who came before them, from Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a Black composer who in his short years of life gave us more than many who’ve defined the classical cannon for centuries to Florence Price who was the first Black woman composer to have a work premiered by a major orchestra. This light has always been there, though we have not always been brave enough to see it.”
Violinist Clayton Penrose-Whitmore has been a member of Sphinx Virtuosi since 2015. He is an alumnus of the New England Conservatory of Music and spoke to us about the tour and returning to Boston.
How long have you been a member of the Sphinx Virtuosi and what has been your experience with Sphinx over the years? (Feel free to detail your full musical journey here! When you started playing, etc.)
I got involved with the Sphinx Organization in 2006 when I competed in the junior division of the competition. Sphinx has always felt like my second family and I have greatly enjoyed playing with the Sphinx Virtuosi since 2015. The Sphinx Organization has supported me through my career as a violinist and I have been lucky enough to meet lifelong friends and colleagues throughout my experiences with Sphinx over the years.
In addition to the Sphinx Virtuosi, what does your career as a professional musician and producer entail?
My career outside of Sphinx Virtuosi mostly consists of working as a music producer for R&B and Hip Hop artists. I really enjoy working with new artists and having the flexibility to jump back and forth between musical worlds.
You performed the “Tracing Vision” program in the fall; are there specific works you look forward to performing the most? Any special parts of the program or the pieces that you would like audiences to especially listen out for?
Something I always look forward to on our “Tracing Visions” program is performing two movements from Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Novelletten for Strings. For this piece I’m performing the Percussion part where I have to play the tambourine and rriangle, which has definitely been a new experience for me.
How does it feel to be touring again after the pandemic? Are there any differences you have noticed in terms of performing and also in terms of audience reactions?
It has been so nice and rejuvenating to be able to perform with this ensemble again after a long break during the pandemic. We really missed being able to spend time with each other and it’s been great getting back on the road. It definitely feels like there is a collective sense of gratitude being able to perform for live audiences regularly again.
You completed your undergrad at NEC; how do you remember/describe the experience and what from your time at NEC is still a part of your life/career today?
I was at NEC from 2011 to 2015 and I enjoyed my time spent in Boston during those 4 years. It was inspiring being around other students and friends performing at such a high level.
The Sphinx Virtuosi frequently give masterclasses and visit schools when touring; what does this add to the tour experience for the musicians?
We really enjoy engaging with students in the community during our tours. Playing music has positively impacted my life in so many ways and I love connecting with students and discussing how they can pursue their musical goals. I feel like I was a student just yesterday. I enjoy trying to relate to their situations and hopefully be able to answer any questions that they might have. I think we all cherish being able to help in any way that we can, whether it’s helping someone discover their passion for music or offering advice to a student farther along in their musical journey.
Any top Boston/Massachusetts “must-dos”? Any places / restaurants you will be making sure to visit while in town?
I’m looking forward to reconnecting with some old friends that I still have in the Boston area and I will definitely be hitting up Tasty Burger before I leave town!