Events & Tickets
Sphinx Virtuosi: This is America
Free Virtual Concert
WAYS TO WATCH ON OCT. 24:
Drawing inspiration from the most promising voices of today, Sphinx Virtuosi seek to lift the many voices within our communities. Despite the physical isolation imposed upon the pandemic, we are unified through our shared commitment to social impact through our expression. We are inspired by the music of Michael Abels, one of the most versatile composers of today, spanning cinema and symphonies alike. The sounds of Jessie Montgomery’s Source Code redefine our canon of tomorrow. Starting with a new work by Xavier Foley, Ev’ry Voice, and on our journey toward other American classics, we seek to find new ways to lift the voices of our Black and Brown communities through the lens of our Black and Brown musicians. Though we are separated by distances and time, we collaborate to share the voices of our flagship ensembles to unify our greater communities during these challenging yet transformative times.
Following the performance, join NWS violin alumni Alex Gonzalez and Emile Mettenbrink and violist Celia Hatton for a live Q&A!
This concert is sponsored in part by Sheldon and Florence Anderson; Beth Boleyn; Gary M. Giardina, Rose Ellen Greene; John and Terri Mason; Faye Munnings; Dorothy A. Terrell; the Keith & Renata Ward Family Fund at The Miami Foundation; and The Wege Foundation.
Lift Ev’ry Voice
Quartet No. 12 in F major for Strings, Op. 96, “American”
Finale: Vivace ma non troppo
Seven for Solo Cello
Arranged by Jannina Norporth (b. 1982)
“America” from West Side Story
Delights and Dances
Solo String Quartet:
Rainel Joubert, Melissa White, violin
Celia Hatton, viola; Thomas Mesa, cello
Lift Ev’ry Voice
Lift Ev’ry Voice is an homage to the Black National Anthem. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was first written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, an American writer and civil rights activist who also led the NAACP. Its first performance was in celebration of President Lincoln's birthday, on February 12, 1900, in Jacksonville, Florida, and was performed by a group of schoolchildren. The poem was set to music by Johnson's brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and as a complete work, was adopted by the NAACP as its official anthem. We often say that music is the soundtrack of our history and our lives. Today we know “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the soundtrack of the African-American civil rights movement.
Xavier Foley—a brilliant bassist and composer, winner of the Avery Fisher Career Grant and a Sphinx Competition Laureate—created two versions of Lift Ev'ry Voice, as commissioned by the Sphinx Organization. One version is for the Sphinx Virtuosi, while the second incorporates Sphinx's professional vocal ensemble, Exigence. This piece was created in 2020 as a special feature under Sphinx's program umbrella of "Land of the Free," which illuminates the wealth of musical talent among American composers. Appearing now as part of our "This is America" digital program, this work has become a beloved standalone piece. The inspiration for the commission came at a time when the ideals of unity were invoked amidst uncertainty, tragedy and hope. In his music, Foley brings out the sonority and virtuosity of the string instruments to feature the familiar melodic material, while uncovering new timbres and sounds, encouraging all of us to look and listen anew, beyond the isolation of the global pandemic and the racial and cultural divides in our country. Today's soundtrack for the hopeful times ahead is ushered in by Foley's new tribute to a treasured piece of the American historical and musical heritage.
Whenever possible, we love to collaborate with and play music by our colleagues and friends. We feel that their voices resonate more deeply with the issues of current times, keeping our music fresh, relevant and live. In this case, our own Jessie Montgomery, a violinist-composer extraordinaire, has toured with and led our ensemble many times. We felt that this piece pays tribute to the music of one of the most abhorrent periods of American history.
We’ve asked her to share her inspiration behind this unique work:
The first sketches of Source Code began as transcriptions of various sources from African American artists prominent during the peak of the civil rights-era in the United States. I experimented by reinterpreting gestures, sentences… by choreographer Alvin Ailey, poets Langston Hughes and Rita Dove, and the great jazz songstress Ella Fitzgerald. Ultimately, this exercise of listening, re-imagining and transcribing led me back to the black spiritual as a common musical source across all three genres. The spiritual is a significant part of the DNA of black folk music, and subsequently most (arguably all) American pop music forms that have developed to the present day.
Quartet No. 12 in F major for Strings, Op. 96, “American”
In 1892 Antonín Dvořák served as artistic director and professor of composition at the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. Dvořák’s mission was to help study and formulate American classical music. Ultimately, his writing indicates that he was rather enamored with the African-American spirituals, Native American melodies and the unusual rhythmic richness of the American musical tradition. He encouraged his American students to look to these elements rather than imitateg European composers. Dvořák spent the summer of 1893 relaxing in a small farming community (300 residents) of Czech immigrants in Spillville, Iowa, where this work was born. The Kneisel Quartet gave the premiere in Boston on New Year’s Day 1894 and in New York on January 12. As the most popular of Dvořák’s string quartets, the “American” reflects his aim “to write something really melodious and simple” and draws not only the melodies of his native land, but also was partlyinspired by the music he heard in America. Specifically, the pentatonic melodies he employs throughout may suggest an authentic connection to the latter. The fast Finale is cheerful, celebratory, jubilant and deeply reflective, at once.
Seven for Solo Cello (2020)
Seven is a tribute to the essential workers of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to those who lost lives and suffered from the crisis. The piece ends with seven bell-like sounds, alluding to New York's daily 7:00 PM tribute during the lockdown—the moment when New Yorkers clapped from their windows, connecting with each other and expressing appreciation for those on the front lines.
“America” from West Side Story
One of the greatest American musicians of the 20th century, Leonard Bernstein was both a prolific composer and a conductor. The music director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein wrote three symphonies and diverse concert works, and also made extensive contributions to musical theater, one of his great loves.
“America” is a song from the musical West Side Story, for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. In the original stage version, Anita praises America, while Rosalia, another Puerto Rican immigrant, supports Puerto Rico. The music uses a robust Hispanic musical style, replete with Latin percussion, guitar and very complex cross rhythms. In the 1961 film version, Rita reinforces her American sentiments, while Bernardo replies with criticisms, which highlight American racism and anti-immigrant prejudice: “Life is all right in America/If you're all white in America.” Subsequently some of the song’s lyrics were removed.
Delights and Dances
Michael Abels, an African American composer best known for combining classical music with jazz, blues, bluegrass and folk genres, has gained widespread recognition for his orchestral music. Delights and Dances, commissioned by Sphinx, captivates listeners with witty, soulful and infectiously rhythmic music. The New York Times described the piece as “an energetic arrangement . . . which incorporates jazz, blues, bluegrass and Latin dance elements.”
Delights and Dances features quickly moving chord sequences and 16th-note runs for the solo quartet, which are rhythmically varied by the insertion of triplet patterns that relax and slow down the pace. The introductory section begins slowly with rhythmic freedom. The opening passage for solo cello sounds almost like a cadenza, then the solo viola plays the cello's ascending motive, and the two play a brief duet before being joined by the two solo violins. The orchestra enters, pizzicato, with short, detached, syncopated patterns. This section sounds like blues but is very rhythmic and has an optimistic feel. Each player in the solo group plays their own riff. The final section, "Bluegrassy," begins with a solo viola theme; soon all four soloists join in a spirited hoedown. Finally, the solo quartet and the orchestral strings play together for a spirited conclusion.
Since its founding in 2004, Sphinx Virtuosi has defined itself as the most diverse professional chamber orchestra in the country. The dynamism in this ensemble’s approach to musicmaking offers an experience of unmatched vibrancy for seasoned and new audiences alike. Comprised of 18 of the nation's top Black and Latinx classical soloists, these artists tour annually as cultural ambassadors to communities far and wide.
This unique self-conducted ensemble earned rave reviews from The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Sun Times and beyond. Allan Kozinn of The New York Times described their performance as “first-rate in every way… producing a more beautiful, precise and carefully shaped sound than some fully professional orchestras that come through Carnegie Hall in the course of the year.” Since its Carnegie Hall debut in 2004, Sphinx Virtuosi have returned to the venue annually from 2006 performing to sold-out halls and earning outstanding reviews.
At once a bridge between communities of color and the classical music establishment, Sphinx Virtuosi continue to garner critical acclaim during their annual national tours to many of the leading venues around the country. Inspired by Sphinx’s overarching mission of transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts, the Sphinx Virtuosi works to advance the social impact of music upon our greater society. Dedicated to new music, the ensemble has pioneered the discovery of gems by composers of color, with the aim of expanding the canon and amplifying new and important voices. Collaborations with composers like Michael Abels, Kareem Roustom, Jimmy Lopez, Gabriela Lena Frank, Jessie Montgomery, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Terence Blanchard and Xavier Foley are among many exciting highlights. Masterworks by Dmitri Shostakovich, Béla Bartók, Franz Schubert, Jennifer Higdon, John Adams, J.S. Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are often woven into the carefully curated programs, which combine risk, exploration and homage. They have also collaborated with Denyce Graves, Sweet Honey in The Rock, Joshua Bell, Pinchas Zukerman, Chicago Children’s Choir, Damien Sneed and others.
As individual artists, Sphinx Virtuosi have performed as soloists with America's major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the symphonies of Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Seattle and Pittsburgh. Members also hold professional orchestral positions, and several have been named Laureates of other prestigious international competitions, including the Queen Elizabeth and Yehudi Menuhin. Roster members are graduates of the nation’s top music schools, including The Juilliard School, the Curtis and Cleveland institutes, Eastman School and beyond. The Sphinx Virtuosi’s first recording was released on the White Pine label and features music of Felix Mendelssohn, Jean Sibelius, Gabriela Lena Frank and George Walker. Sphinx Virtuosi are passionate about empowering the next generation of artists and audiences, and as such, enjoy building interactive, bi-lingual (English/Spanish) programs and working with schools in underrepresented communities.
Sphinx Virtuosi Musicians
Patricia Quintero Garcia, Concertmaster
* Alex Gonzalez
Clayton D Penrose-Whitmore
Meredith Riley, Principal
* Emilia Mettenbrink
Celia Hatton, Principal
Robert Alvarado Switala
Tommy Mesa, Principal
Ismael Guerrero Bombut
Benjamin Harris, Principal
* NWS alumni