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Sphinx Virtuosi Resplendent In Newport Opening

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The Great Hall of the Breakers (Christopher Greenleaf photo)

Newport Classical opened its 55th Music Festival in grand style with the Sphinx Virtuosi ― “a dynamic and inspiring professional self-conducted chamber orchestra and serves as the flagship performing entity of the Sphinx Organization – the leading non-profit dedicated to transforming lives through the power of the arts.” The 18-member chamber orchestra comprises and gives voice to Black and Latinx artists and composers, from among whom they commission annually. Four of the six works on the evening’s programs were written specifically for Sphinx, with three of those being new works for the group, one of which was commissioned for this season and served as the opener. Habari Gani a welcome greeting in Swahili, inspired Quenton Blache (b. 2001) suitably channeled joy and exuberance. Sphinx delivered that brief ‘greeting’ with warm and ebullient sound which, even in the resonant space of the Breakers Mansion, conveyed the lightness, clarity and virtuosity of the pulsating rhythmic passages. Blache, an award-winning Los Angeles based cellist, who is also pursuing an advanced degree in film scoring, holds a minor in Chinese, and competes in national chess tournaments. Habari Gani, commissioned with a gift from the Keith and Renata Ward Emerging Composer Fund, has given him an opportunity to fuse his ancestral roots from Cameroon with his musical passions here in America.

Chilean American composer and guitarist Javier Farías (B. 1973) penned the only-slightly-longer Abran Paso, another new work for Sphinx. The composer writes of “…moving the strings of the guitar, the most representative instrument of Chile, to the strings of the orchestra, so that the richness of our musical traditions can be shared with the world.” Its more aggressive nature reflected the meaning of its title, “Make way,” a term used by master dancers and choreographers when they wish to take the floor. He wove the musical motives so as to depict the solo dancers demonstrating their art and then inviting the entire ensemble to contrast virtuosic and expressive solo instrumental lines with the tutti; he similarly twisted strands of polyphony against the homophonic (chordal) textures of the combined players, often imitating the strumming sounds of guitars or the stomping of dancing feet.

The more familiar and established African American composer Adolphus Hailstork (B. 1941) was represented by the final two movements, Dona nobis pacem and Exultate (reprise) from his lyric and devotional Sonata da Chiesa, literally “Sonata for the Church” (a term from the Baroque), which was inspired by the Cathedral of All Saints, Albany, NY where he grew up. These modal and prayerful, radiant and expressive movements provided expansive open harmonies often sounding in 5ths, a typically early American device which Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber and others employed. Despite Hailstork’s recognition, full performances of this work are rare, and recorded versions even rarer. This writer remembers attempting to program a chamber work of the composer, and being unable to locate the scores, finally called the composer. Hailstork remarked sadly that he thought the public was no longer interested in his music and happily complied. This incident speaks with poignancy about the mission of the Sphinx Foundation and its performing arm – the Sphinx Virtuosi.

The first half closed with yet another new and inspired work, Herencia, which means either “inheritance” or sometimes “heritage.” Spanish American cellist and composer  Andrea Casarrubios (B. 1988). Casarrubios took inspiration from the Sphinx ensemble’s unique way of combing people’s stories together into a bond of humanity through music. She intended to have the listener “reflect on your own epic, in all its wondrous immensity, and how it has led you sitting here in this moment.” She infused Herencia with intense lyricism, sadness, joy, including some poignant solos.  We much admired a section of insistent bass pulses evoking the sound of a bombo (a type of bass drum used in Spain and Argentina) and a particularly expressive vocal-choral sound near the conclusion, as the players hummed along with the strings recalling both ancient music of Spain and some of more the modern jazzier pieces from America del Sud through composers as varied as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

The second half of the program contained a concerto-like work for cello and orchestra Divided Jessie Montgomery (B. 1981) written for and premiered by Cuban American cellist Thomas Mesa, principal with the Sphinx Virtuosi, and the Sinfonietta No. 2 by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004). Montgomery wrote Divided in 2020 as a musical response to social and political unrest from the recent past to our present now. “Specifically, the sense of helplessness that people seem to feel amidst crisis, whether it is over racial injustice, sexual or religious discrimination, greed and poverty, or climate change.” In the dramatic  Divided, the soloist takes on the personae of the victims, at times pleading, even weeping, then becoming angry, almost violent. This “argument” between solo and ensemble reflects in musical opposites alongside the philosophical. Minor-second intervals expressed outcries against harmonies of the wide-open inversions of these same intervals as dissonant harmonies, projecting pain against pain, yet the dissonance never drowns out the lyric beauty of the human condition. Even to the last note, an unresolved dissonance lingers lyrically poignant in its beauty. With brilliant solo work, Mesa took rich and rewarding artistic ownership on a 1767 Nicolò Gagliano cello.

New York-born Coleridge-Taylor Perkins, who took his first name in tribute to the British Romantic composer of African descent Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, worked in symphonic, chamber, and jazz forms, in addition to his own style of blues. He served as Music Director for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, Jerome Robbins’s American Theater Lab and the Dance Theater of Harlem; he also wrote music for film that includes the Martin Luther King documentary From Montgomery to Memphis and several films of Sidney Poitier and some television programs. He even did some arrangements for Motown and Marvin Gaye. He eventually took up a faculty position at Columbia College Chicago, where he directed the Center for Black Music Research and the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble until his death from cancer in 2004.

His based his second Sinfonietta on memories and melodies from his family relations; its movements bear the titles of dances and reflect on his daughter and grandson, branching out to the family matriarchs, and finally the entire African and American patriarchy known and unknown. Morphing among African-American folksongs from childhood with the rhythms of the dance, wide open and sonorous harmonies mix with contrapuntal writing and elements of jazz and pop, all threaded together by the B – A – C – h motif used by many composers from the serialists of the Second Viennese School, going back in time to the great fantasies of Franz Liszt, Max Reger and others, even to Bach himself in his “Art of the Fugue”. All culminated in an enthralling, virtuosic whirlwind necessitating many callbacks.

This auspicious opening augured for intrigue and delight from a summer festival that promised to break new grounds in commissioning, co-commissioning, community and educational outreach, and a commitment to chamber music of the highest caliber.

For a complete schedule of the summer festival click HERE.

Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, RI and teaches at Rhode Island College.

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  1. Thanks for this review, Stephen. I wish that the concert had not been sold out. Would love to hear these emerging voices.

    Comment by Jim Doherty — July 9, 2024 at 11:29 am

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