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Sphinx Virtuosi review: Glimpsing classical music’s future

By Brett Campbell
October 14, 2014

Before they’d even played a note at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, Detroit’s Sphinx Virtuosi had already blasted through three of the barriers separating classical music from contemporary relevance. First, they dared to play an entire program of music by American composers (including a world premiere), all but one of them (Aaron Copland) still living, breathing, and writing music. Exclusively presenting creations from our own time and place would be unremarkable in any other art form, of course, but in the not-coincidentally shriveling classical music establishment, it’s still too rare.

Second, the musicians arrayed on stage were neither old nor white. Sphinx consists of 18 young African- and Latino-American classical musicians — communities terribly underrepresented at Oregon classical music concerts.

Bassist Xavier Foley starred in Sphinx Virtuosi's performance of  John B Hedges's "Raise Hymn, Praise Shout" at Portland State University.

Bassist Xavier Foley starred in Sphinx Virtuosi’s performance of John B. Hedges’s “Raise Hymn, Praise Shout” at Portland State University.

Third, the musicians actually respected their audience, moving briskly and purposefully to their music stands and rather than shuffling score pages around were playing music within a few seconds of hitting the stage. Later, two members spoke engagingly to the audience in an easygoing way that suggested both serious preparation yet natural spontaneity.

The only question that remained as the downbeat approached: could they deliver a performance as musically compelling as their concept was politically correct?

Celebrating the first decade anniversary of its Carnegie Hall debut (the first of 11), the chamber orchestra comprises young classical performers who’ve studied at the country’s top music schools and played with its finest orchestras. They opened with music of another virtuoso classical music outsider, fiddle phenom Mark O’Connor, whose 2011 “Elevations” (written for recent Portland visitor Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s New Century Chamber Orchestra) launched the show to a flying start, until the Appalachian-inflected suite spiraled down after its musical ideas ran out of gas just short of its destination a dozen minutes later.

The group followed with another piece meant to evoke a picturesque journey, “Voyage,” one of the most popular works of one of America’s greatest living composers, John Corigliano. Though played (like the O’Connor) with real commitment and skill, the music itself seemed content to portray a relatively uneventful excursion. I’d have much preferred to start (or end) this journey with the next piece, the bustling “Coquetteos,” from Peruvian American composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s more colorful 2001 trip, Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, where the group’s mastery of rhythmic propulsion finally got a chance to cut loose.

The excitement generated there proved only a prelude to the first-half closer, “Raise Hymn, Praise Shout,” a Sphinx commission from Philadelphia-based composer John B. Hedges that draws on the African American church music tradition. The leisurely first movement casts the bass soloist (here, the prize-winning Xavier Foley) as a preacher engaged in a dialogue with the “congregation” of improvising strings, while the prayerful second section uses material from the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” swaddled in a sort of humming chorus. The third movement raved up the classic call-and-response gospel shout chorus between preacher and congregation. The electrifying Foley’s blistering performance propelled the band through the piece’s occasional languors, ending the first half on a joyous note.

The Catalyst Quartet (Sphinx’s four principals) opened the second half with superlative performance of Vancouver B.C. composer Marcus Goddard’s rousing “Allaqi” (the Inuit term for a clearing in the sky), whose complex meters and unusual textures only enhanced the richness of an award winning work composed for the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The full orchestra returned for a lovely performance of Copland’s early (1926) “Two Pieces for String Orchestra”: The jazzy rhythms and forward-looking harmonies and colors combined to create potent brew that reaffirms just how much glorious music America’s greatest composer made before his “Americana” phase.

Violinist Jessie Montgomery (center, black dress) led Sphinx's performance of her new "Banner."

Violinist Jessie Montgomery (fourth from left, black dress) led Sphinx’s performance of her new “Banner.”

Copland, a strong advocate of new music by American composers who fiercely criticized the already creeping conservatism that began suffocating classical music in the first half of the last century, would have heartily approved of the inclusion of Sphinx composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery’s 2014 world premiere, “Banner,” a rhapsody on the theme of “The Star Spangled Banner” (whose 200th anniversary it celebrates) that put the Catalyst Quartet front and center. Inventively weaving themes from the American anthem with those from seven other “nations” (some unofficial, like James Weldon Johnson’s “black national anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing”), even including a mariachi moment, Montgomery’s composition (which employed some surprising string extended effects and other modern devices) cleverly cast an early 19th-century anthem (and even older tune) in a 21st century multicultural context, avoiding simple sentimentality while somehow capturing its original exultation. It actually would have made a splendid opener (as national anthems so often are) but thanks to Sphinx’s committed, clearly thoroughly rehearsed performance, it worked just fine as a capper on one of the most enjoyable, well-played and involving concerts I’ve attended all year. It toppled another common barrier to classical music enjoyment: dull, insufficiently rehearsed performances.

It’s a shame so few Portlanders heard it; Lincoln Performance Hall was only about half full, and while the sponsor, Portland State University’s College of the Arts and its dean, Robert Bucker, deserves high praise for bringing the group to Oregon, I bet the turnout would have been higher had it been co-sponsored by one of the city’s classical music presenting organizations. Now that Sphinx has proven that new music, what we delicately call “non-traditional” performers, and first-rate, listener-pleasing performances can inhabit the same stage so successfully, I hope more Oregonians will get a chance to experience the future of classical music soon.

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