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Musicians on a Mission: Sphinx Virtuosi Present Debut Album on DG

Sphinx Virtuosi – Songs for Our Times
©Scott Jackson (Feb 2023) Calderwood Hall / Gardner Museum in Boston, MA.

Songs for Our Times is set to introduce the Sphinx Virtuosi to a worldwide audience. Hailed as “top‑notch” by The New York Times, this groundbreaking self-conducted American string ensemble comprises 18 exceptional Black and Latinx artists. Sphinx Virtuosi’s Deutsche Grammophon debut recording is built from works by outstanding composers and artistic visionaries of colour. Its strikingly diverse tracks include the world premiere recordings of Valerie Coleman’s Tracing Visions and Jessie Montgomery’s Divided, both written expressly for Sphinx Virtuosi, which commissions new music annually, in line with its desire to expand its repertoire and connect with new audiences. Songs for Our Times will shine a light both on a community of composers often under-represented in programming and on the breathtaking musicianship of these young professional string players. It is scheduled for digital release on 28 July 2023. Three singles, featuring music by Aldemaro Romero, Florence Price and Ricardo Herz, will be released on 30 June, 14 July and 28 July respectively.

Woven through the most recent compositions presented here are thematic threads of shared humanity, resilience, protest and conflict. Songs for Our Times opens with Global Warming by Michael Abels, winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Though the work’s blend of styles was originally influenced by the thaw in international relations after the fall of the Berlin Wall, its title has a new resonance today, and the music’s ambiguous ending leaves its meaning open to interpretation. Carlos Simon’s Between Worlds, for solo violin, was inspired by the work of artist Bill Traylor, who was born into slavery and later endured the privations imposed by segregation. The work receives a virtuosic performance here from Amaryn Olmeda.

Valerie Coleman’s two-movement Tracing Visions travels from the harrowing “Till,” a reflection of grief and remembrance, to the uplifting “Amandla!” (a Zulu word for “power”), designed to celebrate the unifying ethos of Sphinx itself and underpinned by a motif based on the Morse code for “Sphinx”. Showcasing the talents of Cuban American cellist Thomas Mesa, Divided is a response – to quote its composer, Jessie Montgomery – to “the sense of helplessness that people seem to feel amidst a world that seems to be in constant crisis, whether it is over racial injustice, gender or religious discrimination, greed, power and poverty, or climate change”.

Struggles of perhaps a more purely musical nature are to be found in Sísifo na Cidade Grande (“Sisyphus in the Big City”) by Brazilian violinist and composer Ricardo Herz. The rhythmic complexities and harmonic ambiguity of this vibrant piece are designed to evoke the futile uphill struggle of the mythological Sisyphus.

Songs for Our Times also presents two 20th-century works. Fuga con Pajarillo by Venezuelan composer Aldemaro Romero combines fugal writing with the rhythm of the pajarillo, a dance in which the emphasis is placed on the second beat of each bar, while at the heart of the album lies a moving arrangement of the exquisite “Andante cantabile” from Florence Price’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor.

Finally, bringing the album to a dazzling conclusion is the finale of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9, arranged by Venezuelan violinist Rubén Rengel, a member of the Sphinx family. Honouring the work’s original dedicatee – the virtuoso British violinist of African descent George Bridgetower – Rengel’s version was described by ConcertoNet as “seamless, melodic, with Beethovenian propulsion”.

The Sphinx Virtuosi is the premier touring entity of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization. Founded by violinist, social entrepreneur and poetjournalist Aaron P. Dworkin in 1996 and now led by violinist and educator Afa Dworkin, this non-profit social justice enterprise is dedicated to increasing representation of Black and Latinx artists in classical music, recognising artistic excellence and transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. The Sphinx Virtuosi champions these aims and ideals and is passionate about undertaking widespread outreach and engagement work as it tours the US and beyond. The ensemble will make its UK debut at Snape Maltings Concert Hall on 30 July with a programme that includes Carlos Simon’s Between Worlds and Philip Herbert’s Elegy: In memoriam Stephen Lawrence.

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