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"True to their name, the Sphinx Virtuosi call up the vision of an iconic mythological feline with its immeasurable power, unwavering command, and soulful beauty." This quote from the Washington Post opened the program notes for the 2021 concert tour of the Sphinx Virtuosi. An alternative headline of this concert review drawn from this quote might read with nearly equal force: "Vision Called Up, The Sphinx Sings New Anthems!" The program performed by the eighteen musicians of this conductor-less laureate ensemble was an experience that exceeded parallel performance expectations. This program, given in Tew Recital Hall at UNC-Greensboro, was the second performance of a four-day residency in the Triad area, three days after the October 5th concert in Winston-Salem at the UNC School for the Arts.
The first half of the concert had its own theme of anthems lifted in changed voices and with changing melodies. Bassist, composer, Avery Fisher Career Grant Recipient and 2014 Sphinx Competition laureate Xavier Foley's Ev'ry Voice opened the program, featuring cryptic references to strains of James Weldon Johnson's poem, giving the audience enough partial information to pique our musical curiosities for an unfolding adventure. The structure of this work resembles a set of free variations on this fragmented theme, playing upon extended shifts of mode and style in stark contrast to the original melody in style and spirit. A proclamation in jazz style leads to a hopeful conclusion, a reference to one of the optimistic central lines of the anthem, "sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us." Ev'ry Voice was composed in a time of "perfect desperation": pandemic, civil, political, economic, and social unrest on all sides. Yet in the same spirit as the poetry, every voice is still exhorted to keep raising a song of faith and hope.
Florence Price has become "the most famous rediscovered American composer" of our time. The discovery of her unpublished manuscripts in 2009 and the publication of Dr. Rae Linda Brown's biography "Heart of A Woman" in 2017 has afforded additional exposure to the breadth and depth of Price's music, which includes a surprising amount of string and piano chamber music. In verbally provided comments, the Andante cantabile movement from Price's String Quartet No. 2 in A minor is described as the evocation of an Arkansas morning sunrise. However, a second layer of evocation is also audible in this movement: the waning quality of life that the composer experienced as a little girl in her hometown of Little Rock during the 1920s. Price was the child of parents whose education and professional attainments placed them in a distinguished subgroup within the African American community known as the "Talented Tenth" after the term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois in his volume of essays "The Souls of Black Folk." The movement is a lullaby, reverie, and tribute; the "multiple evocation" is of an Arkansas morning, but also a poignant self-portrait of Price's graceful humanity and tribute to feminine wisdom and strength. The degree of musical grace and beauty heard in this work is only amplified in truest essence as an orchestral setting, always presenting the finest expression and nothing less.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was of the generation of British composers who were directly influenced by the Romantic era generation of German composers. Just as the musical genre of the novelette developed as a response to the literary novelette of the Romantic Period in German and English literature of one generation earlier, so Novelette No.1 in A is cast as a waltz in the manner of Russian ballet (perhaps Tchaikovsky!). Novelette No.3 in A Minor has the expressive quality of a lovely cantilena from ballet tradition; the use of light percussion (tambourine, triangle) in both pieces provided a lightness of texture. One could hear a connection of musical influence referred to as "conscious modeling" between this piece and the preceding string quartet movement of Florence Price, an imagined conversation in the language of melody and expression.
In her introductory remarks, violinist Lady Jess (Jessica McJunkins) commented to the audience that Samuel Coleridge-Taylor discovered that his father, Dr. Daniel Taylor, was a descendant of the Black Loyalist slaves who responded to the Lord Dunmore Proclamation of 1775 and joined the Loyalist cause during the American Revolution. Further investigation also revealed that at war's end, as many as 3,500 Black Loyalists who fought for the British were allowed to immigrate to the colony of Nova Scotia where they were granted their freedom and established settlements (1783-85). After years of hard experiences in the cold climate, some émigrés went to London and back to Sierra Leone between 1787-1791. Coleridge-Taylor's father was a native of Freetown, Sierra Leone, founded by those ancestral "re-expatriates" from America and Canada. The composer was also an active participant in the 1900 Pan-African Conference in London where he would meet and befriend the scholar W. E. B. Du Bois. While this information makes for a distracting program note, the effect of such discovery – of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Afro-British ancestry and African American historical connections, his musical excellence and involvement in international relations on behalf of persons of color – must neither be understated nor obscured from an audience.
Banner for String Quartet & String Orchestra (2014) by Jessie Montgomery was composed in recognition of the 200th anniversary of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It serves as "a companion work" to Anthem (2009), also commissioned by the Providence String Quartet and Community Music Works. Banner is a rhapsody on the theme of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (whose musical setting was composed by John Stafford Smith), even though much argument has occurred over the meaning and legacy of Francis Scott Key's lyrics. Montgomery gives the listener further significant information regarding the latter work's intentional connection between the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing": "In Anthem I wove together the theme from 'The Star-Spangled Banner' with the commonly named Black National Anthem, which coincidentally shares the exact phrase structure." In a manner like the opening work of this program, Banner opens with a "waving flourish" of sonic diversity heard throughout both the solo string quartet and string orchestra, a musical gesture so fittingly impressive that it was hard to ignore both the intended political cause and the sonic-visual effect.
However, this work makes several more even louder statements through its inclusive quotations of "The Star-Spangled Banner": the Puerto Rican national hymn and revisited fragments of "The Second Lift." Throughout the work so much familiar material is quoted, layered, and begging such extramusical questions and so forcefully demanding answers as: what message might the musical expression of "E pluribus Unum" consist of? What messages are we missing here over the course of such repeated encounters? Why must liberty, freedom, equality, diversity, and inclusion be SO dependent upon political, economic and social inequalities from the past four centuries of global history? A grand pause and slowly drummed music became the expression of that very question. Gestures of declaration, question, and protest resumed and became so swift and intense that the work's conclusion literally caught the audience up short, as if the air had been sucked out of the room. It would be most revealing to hear and compare additional performances of this work on tour!
Solo cellist Thomas Mesa opened the second half of the concert with Seven by Andrea Casarrubios, a touching elegy and tribute to the lost lives in the pandemic of 2020 and the bravery and professionalism of the first responders. Mesa commissioned the work; its title and conclusion are a reference to the well-known public displays of gratitude given by so many New York City residents at 7:00 PM for weeks/months on end. The work's expressive features included the scordatura use of a retuned low C string to B-natural ("H" in the German musical alphabet), and an abundance of natural harmonics as seminal melodic material. In barely nine minutes, one hears the strangest mingling of emotion – the effects of extended melodic range and harmonic palette in the cello, its plaintive timbre capturing unavoidable anguish and sorrow balanced by heroism and professionalism. The seven bell tones of the retuned bottom string toll to the memory of so many lives lost, and saddened thanks given to just as many first responders. The eminent French composer and pedagogue Nadia Boulanger's description of Anton Webern's music could also be appropriate for Seven: "let this music…be surrounded by silence."
Written for violin and strings, Inocente and Mourinho by the Brazilian violinist and composer Ricardo Herz are celebrations of alluring Brazilian melodies and infectious rhythmic dialogue. These pieces were a necessary and fitting foil to follow on the heels of the solo cello work. The lilting melody and light, bouncing groove also provided a forced and appropriate thematic push ahead from the program's first half like a musical drink of fresh water. The rhythm dialogues of Mourinho took continued string and drumming cues from Banner, inviting the audience to let go of their expected formality and decorum and bob their heads. The joy of communal rhythm even extended to the principal violinists, who traded solo features in the same manner as two jazz or bluegrass musicians jamming on the bandstand!
When discussing composers of South America, it is easy (and unfairly convenient) to regard Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) of Argentina as the best-known South American composer after Heitor Villa-Lobos. Like Villa-Lobos, whose compositions explore and celebrate the Brazilian folk spirit, so the music of Ginastera captures and declares the spirit of the gaucho, a longtime national symbol. The four dances from Ginastera's Estancia are a popular example of that spirit and expression. The Finale of Ginastera's Concerto for Strings should be best nicknamed "Fast and Furious Finale" for its relentless hyper-mechanistic quality, moving from lively melody and frantic rhythmic drive to noise and chaos, intensifying to the breaking point at its end. Audiences who have been programmed to only assess dramatic and aesthetic value to "tonal" endings will be understandably surprised and even grated at this "noise ending." However, given the tone of our national and global news, such a culmination is not only musically fitting but makes strange sense.
Despite a flawless performance (given a standing ovation at its close) and verbal notes about each programmed work given by selected ensemble members who identified themselves, there is a single matter of reviewer concern: the names of all members of the Sphinx Virtuosi were not listed in print on the program; only Thomas Mesa was listed for Seven. It is understood (sometimes) that print deadlines established by host venues in advance don't always allow for "complete" print listings at all tour concerts, even though they should do so in theory and practice. Nevertheless, heartiest congratulations to the Sphinx Virtuosi on a fine concert and tour. Keep calling up that vision!