Concerti Per Venti: Sphinx Virtuosi at Rackham Auditorium


Sphinx Virtuosi by Kevin Kennedy

Sphinx Virtuosi is comprised of 18 of the top black and Latinx classical soloists in the country. Photo by Kevin Kennedy.

Rackham Auditorium hosted and UMS presented the gifted and absorbing chamber music ensemble Sphinx Virtuosi on Sunday afternoon as part of the group’s 20th-anniversary tour.

Based in Detroit, the Sphinx Organization is committed to promoting the transformative power of the arts through diversity and inclusion. The Sphinx Virtuosi ensemble is comprised of 18 of the top black and Latinx classical soloists in the country, all of whom are alumni of the prestigious Sphinx Competition that the organization holds annually in Detroit.

As Jessie Montgomery, the current concertmaster of the Virtuosi, noted during Sunday’s concert, another key priority of the Sphinx Organization is to support new work by composers of color, whose voices which are vastly underrepresented (accounting for barely 1% of the classical canon, according to Montgomery).

In keeping with this mission, Sunday’s program complemented a first half heavy on continental baroque and classical works with a second half featuring two Sphinx-commissioned works by composers of color: Jimmy López’s "Guardian of the Horizon," a concerto grosso for violin, cello, and strings, and Michael Abels’ "Delights and Dances," both of which were composed to commemorate important anniversaries of the Sphinx Organization.

The program opened with "Concerto Grosso for String Orchestra" by Vaughan Williams. Although surpassed by the selections that followed it, the piece afforded a glimpse of the chemistry of the ensemble, particularly in their effortless transition as the tempestuous and rhythmically involved Burlesca Ostinata gave way to the mournful, stately Sarabande.

The Virtuosi followed the Vaughan Williams with Beethoven’s formally ambitious (and ambiguous) Grosse Fuge in B-Flat Major, Op. 133, a grand double fugue built on a striking chromatic figure which is passed around and transmuted by each section in turn. Originally written to serve as the concluding movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B♭ major, the Grosse Fuge was performed in that context at the Quartet’s premiere but was met with such vitriol by critics that Beethoven’s publisher had to convince him to release it separately. Posterity having worked its redemptive magic, the piece continues to be a much-discussed and performed work today, and the Sphinx ensemble’s performance did its merits justice.

Vivaldi’s Concerto in B♭ major for Violin and Cello rounded out the first half of the program in fine Baroque style on the wings of compelling and deeply felt performances by the featured soloists, violinist Annelle Gregory and cellist Thomas Mesa, among whom there was an obvious and engaging rapport.

A different pair of soloists brought fiery charisma and evident joy to a new piece recently commissioned by Sphinx to celebrate their 20th anniversary. Adé Williams (violin) and Gabriel Cabezas (cello) helmed López’s "Guardian of the Horizon" with aplomb. The piece begins with a staccato "riddle" figure rippling through the ensemble, which is then taken up and wrangled with by the soloists. At the center of the piece is a tenuous threshold signified by ethereal and tentative unison passages by the soloists, which subside to make way for a spirited finish which the soloists delivered with such gusto that both took advantage of a brief respite from playing to pluck and jettison several bowstrings that had come loose in their furor.

The Virtuosi concluded the program with a barnburner: Abels’ "Delights and Dances," a work commissioned for the group’s 10th anniversary in 2007. Refracting the conventions of chamber music through the prisms of bluegrass and the blues, Abels’ work is approachable but intricate. The musicians fulfilled the promise of the title and then some, visibly loosening up on stage and swapping appreciative smiles when a colleague handled an especially tricky passage with panache. Gaining momentum through a section that spotlit extended riff-like turns by each member of the featured quartet, the ensemble drove the piece home with a flourish in a veritable shindig of a final movement (entitled “Bluegrassy”) that carried more than a whiff of Copland.

If this concert was a representative look at the achievements of the first 20 years of the Sphinx Organization, here’s one listener who will be paying close attention to what the next 20 bring.

Nicco Pandolfi is a freelance writer and a graduate student in Information Science at the University of Michigan. He mainly writes about what he mainly thinks about: music and food.