Sphinx Virtuosi’s repertoire features music by composers of color
On Sunday, October 15, at St. Paul’s Ordway Center, I attended a concert by the chamber orchestra Sphinx Virtuosi. It was the first time I had gone to a classical music performance since the 1980s. This time, I would be attentive to every work this orchestra performed, because all the music was composed and performed by people of African and Latinx descent.
Sphinx Virtuosi is a touring ensemble of virtuoso-level stringed instrument players (hence the name “Virtuosi”) presented by the Detroit-based nonprofit Sphinx Organization, which has a mission of “increasing representation of Black and Latinx artists in classical music and recognizing excellence,” according to its website. The chamber orchestra ensemble is made up of 18 players of the violin, viola, cello and bass. The program for the Ordway performance was titled “Generations” and was inspired by the work of poet Langston Hughes and novelist Julia Alverez.
Unlike most classical music performances, most of the members of Sphinx Virtuosi stood during the concert. The bassists and cellists had seats due to the size of their instruments. But all the violinists and violists were on their feet, swaying and stepping with their music and playing with dramatic flourishes of their bows. The ensemble’s animated performance brought energy and excitement to their performances and moved the audience to cheers and multiple standing ovations.
A history of Black composers
In the 1980s, I was a struggling youth living hand to mouth in Ann Arbor, MI, the home of the University of Michigan. One day a buddy of mine told me that there was going to be a free classical music concert on campus and asked if I would go with her. It was free entertainment and gave me an opportunity to set foot inside one of the hallowed campus halls, so of course I said yes.
The only performance I remember from that concert was a work called “American Guernica.” The work was in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, that killed four Black girls and injured as many as 22 other people. The “Guernica” in the title referred to the Spanish town that was aerial bombed in 1937, by the Nazis who collaborated with General Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who ruled the country until his death in 1975.
Spanish artist Pablo Picasso portrayed the deaths of civilians in the bombing in his painting “Guernica.” Because the men of the town were away fighting the civil war against Franco, women and children were most of the victims.
The performance of “American Guernica” started with a loud cacophony of strings, horns and percussion from the full orchestra, punctuated by the sound of an actual mechanical siren turned by one of the musicians. Suddenly, the orchestra went silent. Then an African American woman played a slow gospel tune on a grand piano. After that, the urgent blast from the orchestra resumed and alternated with more mournful piano playing. The music then turned to low and gentle sounds and concluded with a soft fading away.
Years later, I learned more about the composer of “American Guernica,” Adolphus Hailstork, an African American composer. I also learned about the existence of other Black people who were classical music composers and performers, from the 18th-century French-Caribbean prodigy Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges to 20th-century American opera singer Jessye Norman.
Little-known classical works
The first two musical works Sphinx Virtuosi performed, “Habari Gani” (Swahili for “What’s the news?”), composed by Quenton Blache, and “Abran Paso” (Spanish for “Make way”) by Javier Farías, were up-tempo, rousing works that set the tone for a concert that was not going to be the stereotypical stodgy classical performance. The rhythms of the music had me head-nodding like I was grooving to a hip-hop beat.
At the end of “Abran Paso,” violist Robert Switala introduced the next work—two excerpts from “Sonata da Chiesa” (“Church Sonata” in Italian), composed by Adolphus Hailstork. When Switala said the name, I was reminded of the first African American classical composer I had ever heard of (or heard). A recording of the full 20-minute sonata is part of my personal music collection, among other works by Hailstork.
“Habari Gani” and “Abran Paso” are both works commissioned specifically for performance by Sphinx Virtuosi, along with “Herencia” (“Inheritance” or “Heritage” in Spanish) composed by Andrea Casarrubios. This work differed from all the others in the program because it included a vocal part in which some of the players sang a wordless choral tune that lent an ethereal quality to music that rolled with wide crests and troughs like waves in the sea.
Bassist Xavier Foley introduced his own composition entitled “Galaxy, Concertante for Two Double Basses and String Orchestra.” Foley named the work “Galaxy,” because he said, “a lot of composers, way back, like Mozart and [Gustav] Holst, would name their own pieces after stuff in space. So I thought, ‘Now it’s my turn,’” he explained, eliciting laughter and applause from the audience.
Foley’s bass and that of Kebra-Seyoun Charles acted as lead instruments in the work, an unusual arrangement for classical music. After a soaring and lilting introduction, the music focused on a dueling bassists exchange between Foley and Charles, with the former’s firm fingering and bowing contrasting with the latter’s more fluid playing of his instrument.
The final work of the concert was a 20-minute sinfonietta—a small-scale version of a symphony—by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, a 20th-century African American composer named after late 19th-early 20th-century Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The sinfonietta, entitled “Generations,” mixes European and African influences with the American folk lullaby “Mockingbird” (“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word/mama’s gonna buy you a…”) woven throughout the composition.
The grand, passionate performance of Sphinx Virtuosi should be heard, seen and felt by audiences of all ages and races, no matter their tastes in music.
For more information about Sphinx Virtuosi, go www.sphinxmusic.org.