Rhythmic vitality and terrific ensemble characterized this performance of the 18-strong Sphinx Virtuosi. Perhaps the absence of a conductor explains the tight-knit ensemble work as well as the sense of democratic music making in which each musician must take personal responsibility for his/her performance. This group of “top alumni of the national Sphinx Competition for young Black and Latino string players” delighted the large audience in Aycock Auditorium on the UNCG campus.

The diverse program included familiar composers Bartók, Bach, and Schubert, the less-well-known Ginastera and Nyman, and the obscure. The evening opened with one such composer, Venezuelan Juan Bautista Plaza (1898-1965). His 1931 Fuga Criolla (originally for string quartet and titled Fugue on Venezuelan Folk Melodies) is infused with dance rhythms, which induced good energy from the ensemble.

The last movement of Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings provided more folk influence, albeit from a different continent. Solos from individual players contrasted nicely with the larger group as the music dove through changes of tempo and meter, all in perfect synch, no mean task.

A passacaglia by Handel arranged by Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) gave violinist Danielle Belen and violist Paul Laraia a virtuoso showpiece. Belen (not officially a member of the ensemble) is the winner of the 2008 Sphinx Competition; Laraia is part of the band. A passacaglia features a short recurring figure, which provides a great scaffolding over which to explore harmonics, double stops, pizzicato playing — the works. Belen and Laraia reveled in the challenges and dove in head first, each playing off the other’s energy.

Four of the ensemble’s principal players, violinists Bryan Hernandez-Luch and Karla Donehew-Perez, violist Christopher Jenkins, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez, comprise the Catalyst Quartet, which performed two numbers. The first movement of Michael Nyman’s String Quartet No. 2 (1988) combines elements of minimalism with a rock aesthetic in a virtuoso setting. The finale Furioso movement, from Argentinean Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26 (1958), certainly shows Bartók’s influence, but through a South American prism. This music is “in your face” seething, frantic and fabulous fun. 

The second half of the concert began with “dueling quartets” in the guise of Osvaldo Golijov’s 1996 Last Round for two String quartets and double bass. The two movements, written as homage to Argentinean Astor Piazzolla (1921-92), are influenced by tango and pop music. Unfortunately, the instruments of the one of the quartets faced away from the audience, creating a lopsided aural experience.

Alla Burletta, the third movement of Generations Sinfonietta No. 2, by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004), featured lots of pizzicato playing in this short playful romp. The web of counterpoint in the Ricercare a 6 by J.S. Bach was cleanly etched out.

The evening concluded with the last movement of Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet as partially arranged by Gustav Mahler (scholars have subsequently completed the arrangement using Mahler’s notes). This furious gallop perfectly ended an evening of animated and vigorous music-making.

The Sphinx Virtuosi came to Greensboro as part of a multi-day educational program organized by Peeler Open Elementary School string teacher Marta Richardson. Under the auspices of the Classical Music Across Cultures Projects, the members of the ensemble performed for close to 2000 students throughout the Guilford County school system and at UNCG.