“Tracing Visions” was the intriguing title of the Sphinx Virtuosi program, an ensemble of 18 premier string musicians who are black and Latino, performed at Carnegie Hall on Friday. As Afa S. Dworkin, the president of Sphinx, explained in comments to the audience, that line spoke both of the mission of the organization and of the music played so impressively that night.
You have to have a vision, carefully design one, before you can write it down and achieve it, Dworkin suggested. Sphinx began in 1997 as a “social justice organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts,” an ambitious mission statement more essential than ever at this time. Based in Detroit but with a national reach to some 100,000 students and artists, Sphinx puts stringed instruments in the hands of children and provides them with training; sponsors a national competition that awards stipends, scholarships and performance opportunities; and has a development project for emerging artists, among other initiatives.
Sphinx Virtuosi, on a national tour, is the organization’s most prestigious point of sale; and the splendid performances showed why. A haunting account of the opening work, Xavier Foley’s “Ev’ry Voice” sets a thoughtful tone. The music is like an episodic rumination on “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, often called “the black national anthem”. At the beginning, the segments of the melody are played in temporary strands rich in harmonics. Then, as the violins ascend towards high and softly tender lines, in the lower registers other strings begin to stir, as if to start this piece. There are passages of lively riffs, hard-edge chords, an explosion of swing and, finally, a marching band. This led to Florence Price’s lyrical and melancholy movement, Andante cantabile from her 1935 String Quartet No. 2, which proved to be dazzlingly rich in this version for string ensemble.
Various actors took turns to present works. A member explained that Brazilian violinist and composer Ricardo Herz adapted “Mourinho”, an invigorating dance song in the Brazilian forró style, especially for Sphinx. As the original was full of percussion, the string players here slap and tap their instruments to evoke the rhythms that capture the festive vibe of the music, as they incidentally did in this gripping performance.
Cuban-American cellist Thomas Mesa spoke at length before playing Andrea Casarrubios’ “Seven” for solo cello, a deep, intense and elegiac tribute to essential workers during the pandemic. The title alludes to the community ritual of applause, screaming and pounding pots and pans every night at 7 p.m. for these heroes. Mesa played it beautifully.
Jessie Montgomery’s “Banner”, which received its New York premiere by Sphinx Virtuosi at the Carnegie in 2014, has almost become her flagship piece. The music takes “The Star-Spangled Banner” and explores, fractures, transforms and comments on the melody and its complex associations. Written for a solo string quartet both with and against a string ensemble in the background, the piece received here a vibrant and confident performance.
The charismatic bass-baritone Davóne Tines was the soloist in the following two pieces: “Come away, come away, death” by British composer Gerald Finzi, a sternly beautiful setting to music of a poem by Shakespeare (from the song cycle “Let Us Garlands Bring”); and “Angels in Heaven” by Carlos Simon, an arrangement of a spiritual song during baptisms (“I know I have been changed”). Tines invited the audience to join in. final refrains of the religious song Many members of this audience clearly knew this, judging by the vigor of the response.
The program ended with the breathtaking, wild and lamentable “Final furioso” of Alberto Ginastera’s String Concerto. The prolonged ovation that followed came as no surprise.