Sphinx Virtuosi

Sphinx Virtuosi “For Justice and Peace” Confronts Social Justice Issues

Music happens in real time.

On Friday, October 11th, 2019, the Sphinx Virtuosi string orchestra concluded their annual United States tour at Carnegie Hall with a program entitled “For Justice and Peace.” Six hours later, Atatiana Jefferson was murdered by Fort Worth Texas police without warning inside her home while playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew.

The concert had included commentary on gun violence to black bodies, an elegy for a murdered black man whose case shifted UK criminal justice, two musical reminders of the 400th anniversary of slavery’s start in the United States, and some Bartok and Schubert in their local police and national military contexts. 

The Sphinx Virtuosi and Sphinx Organization, its Detroit-based affiliate partner, believe diversity is not only ethical, but makes better art, and they have nurtured a network of performers, educators, and administrators who agree. The audience drawn to Sphinx Virtuosi concerts is a fantastic mix of colors, countries, and ages. The family of seven in front of me could come because they got free tickets to the concert from a teacher. Christopher plays the piano; Shirley wants to learn. Kimberly plays the violin and is also, she informs me, a regular singer in church productions. “Is this your first time [at Carnegie Hall]?” Christopher asked me. “Are you excited?”

I was.

Sphinx Virtuosi Concertmaster Rubén Rengel--Photo courtesy www.rubenrengel.com

Sphinx Virtuosi Concertmaster Rubén Rengel–Photo courtesy www.rubenrengel.com

Showcasing Venezuelan concert music, Fuga con pajarillo by Aldemaro Romero opened the program. The piece gives honors to national improvisatory traditions while employing European fugal form. Concertmaster Rubén Rengel, Winner of the 2018 Annual Sphinx Competition and also Venezuelan, took the solos with equal parts precision and flair. The following Bartók “Allegro assai” from Divertimento for Strings featured a similar formal approach, this time as sonata form unfolding traditional Hungarian folk tunes. Global Warming by Michael Abels, a regular Sphinx collaborator who scored Jordan Peele’s recent films Get Out and Us, gave a rousing imitation of an Irish cèilidh. For anyone listening to the work of Iranian Female Composers Association, the “Middle Eastern tones” of Global Warming seemed slight and stereotypical, but the conceptual integration of these two regions felt fresh. 

Elegy: In Memoriam – Stephen Lawrence by Philip Herbert was presented as “a musical moment of silence” commemorating the 1993 racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence. His death became a watershed case in UK legal practice and public engagement. Herbert embedded a brief, memorable theme in soft suspensions, simple but effective textural changes, and a repeated cello solo to eulogize Lawrence’s life and move through hatred to hope. 

Xavier Foley expanded these themes to cinematic proportions. The 2014 winner of the Sphinx Competition has gone on to become principal bassist and current composer-in-residence for the Virtuosi. For Justice and Peace was co-commissioned by the New World Symphony, Sphinx Organization, and Carnegie Hall’s 125 Commissions Project. In its Carnegie Hall debut, the work transformed the string orchestra into a backdrop for courtroom gavel percussion. Solo bass and violin represented a modern dialogue about slavery’s history in the United States. Human voices asked “Your Honor, where is my freedom?” as the soloists imitated, unified, or revolted to opposite ends of their tonal range.

Xavier Foley--Photo courtesy www.xavierfoley.com

Xavier Foley–Photo courtesy www.xavierfoley.com

I asked Shirley, the aspiring Latina pianist in front of me, if she had ever heard opera before. She said no–but then Damien Sneed changed that with excerpts from his new opera, We Shall Overcome. Sneed explained to the audience: the opening and closing white tone clusters on the piano represented gun violence from the slave ships and in today’s United States. Between those bookends, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, baritone Will Liverman, and the Chorale Le Chateau sang:

“1619 and now 2019
Mmmm, mmmm
We are still cryin’ out to let my people go
O, o, let my people go
…Yet we survive!!

The excellent programming was somewhat diluted by balance and projection issues. Despite the efforts of Virtuosi’s celli and double basses, the ensemble never quite filled the Stern Auditorium. The “Presto” of Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, D. 810 “Death and the Maiden” was introduced as a terrifying illustration of Schubert’s arrest by Viennese secret police; the episode sounded distant and barely creepy. Conversely, Bridges and Liverman were nearly drowned (despite solo mics) by the Chorale Le Chateau in Sneed’s opera excerpts. Still, the program narrative was clear and cohesive thanks to straightforward program notes, no intermission, and regular interactions with the audience. The single timbre of string orchestra unified a program of hybrid forms and granted equal dignity to folk and concert material. 

Damien Sneed--Photo courtesy www.damiensneed.com

Damien Sneed–Photo courtesy www.damiensneed.com

“In the end,” wrote Xavier Foley of his piece For Justice and Peace, “the music offers light and hope as we all ultimately strive toward peaceful solutions.” Standing ovations for Foley and Sneed made it clear their topics resonated with the audience, and Atatiana Jefferson’s death too quickly reminded us of the reality artists and their non-artistic partners face. The true power of Sphinx Organization and its Virtuosi lies in their long-term action initiatives outside of the concert hall, empowering black and latino students with systematized education, networks, and career launchpads. Diverse content and performers–although deeply valuable and still too scarce–do not alone change the demographics of concert music’s future composers, program directors, and Board chairs. The music community must actively champion equitable education, and in the meantime, Carnegie–and all season calendars–should do with more concerts like this.