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Sphinx Virtuosi: Unleashing the power of diversity in music

Sphinx Vurtuosi at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

By Suzanne Schaffer

When the Sphinx Virtuosi take the stage on Sunday, the musicians will make eye contact with one another and take one sharp, collective inhale, quickly releasing a surge of young energy as one organism. That’s what happens when you spend 30-odd days together on tour, performing concerts nearly every day and entertaining each other on the long bus rides in between. This Sunday’s concert at the Ordway is the culmination of their 2016 tour.

The Sphinx organization, based in Detroit, works to develop and support young talented Black and Latino string players and in the process, transform lives through “the power of diversity in the arts.” The Sphinx Virtuosi are their shining stars. This conductor-less chamber ensemble includes exceptional alumni of Sphinx’s concerto competition, the youth training orchestras and the intensive summer camps. The principals of the ensemble are members of the Catalyst Quartet.

It’s likely to be an emotional final concert for the musicians, and perhaps for the audience as well. Over the course the last six weeks, the ensemble has played a sold out concert at Carnegie Hall, improvised in backstage jam sessions (don’t miss the video) and answered zillions of questions from kids at school outreach concerts.  The musicians have worked hard and had fun together. They also share a special camaraderie. Nationwide Black and Latino classical musicians make up the smallest percent—less than 5%—of orchestra members. In the Sphinx Virtuosi, no musician is the “other” or “only” in any measure. Several musicians who have performed with Sphinx Virtuosi have said these are friendships that will last for life.

The Sphinx organization promotes diversity of music as well as musicians. On the program for Sphinx Virtuosi’s Latin Voyages concert are two well-known, well-loved tangos by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla that have exciting, propulsive rhythms. The other pieces on the program will likely be new to most audience members. There’s a romantic musical fantasy by Heitor Villa-Lobos that nestles melodies by his idol J.S. Bach in the Brazilian rainforests that Villa-Lobos explored as a young man. Another piece is by contemporary Mexican composer Javier Álvarez. It’s called Metro Chabacano and takes listeners right inside the thrumming subway station in Mexico City after which it is named. Both of those pieces will certainly be highlights of the concert.

The Sphinx Virtuosi with the Catalyst Quartet perform Sunday, Oct. 30 at 3 p.m. at Ordway Concert Hall. To find out more about Sphinx, visit www.sphinixmusic.org.