Portland Center Stage presents Hair at the Armory Portland Oregon

The real deal: Sphinx Virtuosi at The Reser

The conductorless chamber orchestra premiered music by Jessie Montgomery, Valerie Coleman, Carlos Simon, Michael Dudley, and Ricardo Herz.


Sphinx Virtuosi. Photo by Scott Jackson.
Sphinx Virtuosi. Photo by Scott Jackson.

When Sphinx Virtuosi performed Oct. 11 at Beaverton’s Reser Center, the stage looked very different from one at traditional chamber or orchestral concerts.

For one, it was full of 18 Black and Latinx musicians, and they were young — OK, 21 to 41 years old, or so. And there was no conductor, common for chamber groups but unusual for one this large.

The maestro-less group was reviewed in the New York Times after its 2021 Carnegie Hall appearance as “more essential at this moment than ever,” referring to the many racially charged tragedies and realignments in the past few years. The reviewer called the performance “vibrant and assured,” and the group, “top-notch.” 

Those words rang just as true this year in this concert of mostly new music called Songs for Our Times.

Earlier in October the Virtuosi had another date at Carnegie Hall, the same week as their Oregon tour ended with their jubilant Chamber Music Northwest appearance at The Reser, though this concert was no warm-up. It was the real deal.

The group is composed of 18 accomplished string musicians who flew in from all over the nation. Before The Reser show, they met and performed in front of 1,500 Oregon students, and played at Eugene’s University of Oregon and Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

The musicians–seven women and 11 men–were poised, ebullient, tightly coordinated, supremely energetic, and among the best in the nation, and there’s a lot of competition: CMNW brings many very good chamber and orchestral musicians to town. With this group, there was a bonus aside from their youth: They performed five premieres by living composers of color.

Sphinx Virtuosi. Photo by Scott Jackson.
Sphinx Virtuosi. Photo by Scott Jackson.

That’s a bundle for a single evening that ended with Ruben Regel’s arrangement of the final movement of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, aka “Bridgetower” (obviously not a premiere, nor the evening’s highlight). Controversy swirls around the notion that Beethoven has Black ancestors, and some evidence suggests he does, though I doubt that accounted for his musical presence on the program. His entanglement with George Bridgetower–a man of African descent to whom he first dedicated the piece and later, after a spat, re-dedicated it to someone else–could have been part of the reason it was programmed. Maybe. It’s also a familiar piece to many listeners, and concert programming often requires balancing the new with the old.

Jessie Montgomery, a Black composer and virtuoso violinist experiencing plenty of bright moments these days–including in Oregon where several of her pieces have been performed during the last few years–was a two-time laureate of the annual Sphinx competition. Two of her pieces were featured in The Reser concert, including the exuberant eight-minute Strum from 2006. Drawing on American folk music, dance and movement, as she explained in the program notes, the piece was originally composed for a cello quintet. Montgomery revised it several times, and said that “spread wide over the ensemble, the music takes on an expansive quality of sound.” I’ve heard the piece played by the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, where Montgomery twice served as its composer-in-residence in the past seven years. At that time the composition was played by a group less than half the size of the Virtuosi, and it worked well, but with the entire ensemble strumming away, adding layers of pizzicato, Strum showed more emphatically its breathless energy.

Montgomery’s second piece was a premiere called “Divided.” It featured Cuban-American cellist Tommy Mesa on his sixth Virtuosi tour, and he’s an obvious old hand at stage presence and dramatic presentation. The music needed both because the cello was “crying out to be heard,” as Montgomery explains, pleading to join in with a tough-minded orchestra. He was shredding it; horse hairs were flying off his bow. 

Mesa’s was a virtuoso performance, as was Hannah White’s fast-fingered violin handiwork in the four-minute Carlos Simon piece, Between Worlds, based on a Black man born in 1853 who died in 1949 after enduring slavery, the Civil War, the Great Migration, Jim Crow and segregation. White told us that Simon was watching and listening when she first played his piece in front of a big audience, and she said that she later received some tips from him.

Michael Dudley’s Prayer for our Times, another premiere, was a 9-minute contemplative composition about loss and grief. It was my favorite of the evening, beginning with the quiet dark season of winter and progressing through less stark seasons–Dudley’s metaphor for making sense of grief during recent Covid times. Dudley said the piece was “loosely inspired by the colors and spirit” of Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, and Dudley’s composition reached for Gorecki’s rising and falling tragic grandeur.

Valerie Coleman—flutist, founder of all-winds chamber group Imani Winds, who has appeared in Portland several times, and a composer who CMNW often includes in its programming—was commissioned by Sphinx for Tracing Visions, a three-part premiere. The last part, “Amandla!,” Coleman writes, “personifies a vision of unity, with melodies and grooves that depict many cultures coming together into an empowered tapestry of voice,” a state that Coleman describes as “the very definition of the ethos of Sphinx.”

Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 W. 449, written in 1945, allowed the musicians to rock out on his baroque-obsessed Brazilian music. The final premiere was Ricardo Herz’s Sisyphus in the Big City, which embraced Israeli jazz, Maracatu, and other world music. Another fast-moving, almost dizzying piece, it is written in 25/16 meter. Imagine that.

Portland Center Stage presents Hair at the Armory Portland Oregon

Started by Aaron Dworkin, the Sphinx organization turned 25 this year. The Detroit-based non-profit named for the enigmatic mythological creature who held a riddle hostage, has made significant contributions in transforming classical music by mentoring and helping to launch the careers of thousands of young Black and Latinx musicians. Many have gone on to play in prestigious orchestras and to perform with other stand-out musicians, as well as embracing and exercising leadership skills. Sphinx recently received a large infusion of money from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist and ex-wife of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

Sphinx is a success story, if this dynamic concert was any indication. The Reser was only half full (257 seats out of 550). What a shame that more people didn’t attend.

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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