Orchestral music has always felt like a commitment. Listening to Mozart, Bach or Brahms is not for enjoyment, but rather a more serious soundtrack for getting my work done (without wasting an hour dancing to Megan Thee Stallion). Maybe it’s the lack of lyrics or the high-brow nature of classical music, but Western string instruments never gave me the excitement I crave in music.
But, what if orchestras were more than the sum of their boring parts? What if orchestras could create music that engaged an audience rather than lull me to sleep?
Chamber orchestras around the world have tried their best to capture the height of human emotion by quite literally rubbing strings together, yet few have caught my heart. Classical music has had one foot in the grave ever since Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica,” but that doesn’t mean orchestras are six feet under just yet.
Sphinx Virtuosi is a perfect example of that, breathing life into their orchestra with new work from underrepresented voices in music. As a Detroit-based, not-for-profit social justice organization, Sphinx uses the arts to uplift underrepresented musicians through education, leadership and performance. Each pillar of their mission is seen through one of Sphinx’s professional chamber orchestras, Sphinx Virtuosi.
With an orchestra of Black and Latinx musicians, Sphinx Virtuosi’s program “This is America” was free to the public with truly no strings attached.
“This is America” is a six-piece presentation that highlights the work of Black and Latinx composers. The program clocked in at barely over an hour making it feel more like listening to your favorite no-skip album and less like a marathon. With recent trends showing less than five percent of orchestral musicians as being Black or Latinx, organizations like Sphinx Virtuosi are crucial spaces for underrepresented identities in orchestral music. Providing performances ranging from solo commissions to lively, full-length orchestra recordings, each of the program’s songs pack a punch and provide a worthy introduction to the stunning talent of Sphinx Virtuosi.
A highlight of the “This is America” performance came toward the end with Sphinx Virtuosi’s performance of “Delights and Dances” by Michael Abels. The dissonant joy of the piece was exemplified through the quartet’s viola performance by Celia Hatton. Hatton’s performance was rich, robust and personified the heightened emotional presence of a prima donna singing their heart out.
In a killer ensemble, Hatton’s phrasing was matched by the fellow members of her quartet — Rainel Joubert (Violin I), Melissa White (Violin II) and Thomas Mesa (Cello) — with each member offering a wavering pull into the handoff of every phrase of the song. Together, the piece captured the wonderful ebb and flow of bittersweet joy that comes with Abel’s work. You might have heard his music before in “Get Out” or “Us.” Abel is known for working in the more eerie sectors of music. Yet, this piece felt like a requiem of hope for the history of Black music in America.
Although most programs and live events have struggled to keep up during COVID-19 times, Sphinx Virtuosi, with the help of Four/Ten Media, was able to create a more engaging chamber orchestra than that of their predecessors.
Using individual recordings of each musician, Four/Ten Media created an inventive visual collage of musicians performing each piece. The visual collection of members recording their part shifted throughout each performance, focusing on fast runs of the violins one moment and the deep plucks of the double bass the next.
This virtual enhancement allowed me to observe each musician working at their craft and appreciate the tactical ability that comes from being a virtuoso by the likes of Nicki Minaj or Taylor Swift. Although at times the virtual setting was punctuated by hearing the musicians breathe, in a way, it made me feel as though I was breathing with them through each phrase in the music.
So, maybe not all orchestras are that boring. Sphinx has simply cut inequitable ties that have persisted in the orchestral field and the music industry as a whole. Sphinx has no strings attached and no, I’m not just saying that because it’s a bit of fun wordplay, but because they aren’t trying to tie their audience down in the details.
Sphinx Virtuosi is no strings attached because they offer up “This is America” as a free experience to uplift Black and Latinx musicians for communities who usually don’t have access.
No strings attached because the stories they tell are authentic and capture your heart. No strings attached because they let the musicians speak for themselves — and it is magnetic.
Daily Arts Contributor Matthew Eggers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.