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Arts & Culture

Chamber Ensemble Dedicated To Diversity Makes Virtual Stop In Connecticut

Kevin Kennedy
The Sphinx Organization
Sphinx Virtuosi

Sphinx Virtuosi is a conductor-less chamber ensemble comprising 18 Black and Latinx classical musicians. The group will present a virtual concert this weekend and then launch a mentorship program for student musicians from Bridgeport.

Sphinx Virtuosi is part of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization. Through various programs and ensembles, the organization is “dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.”

The chamber ensemble will perform a program called This Is America, which features music influenced by Black and Latinx music, like the finale to Antonín Dvo?ák’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, also known as the American Quartet. It was written while Dvo?ák was on vacation in Spillville, Iowa, and is heavily influenced by African American spirituals.

The program also features music by Black and Latinx composers. Virtuosi violist Dana Kelley said the program was inspired, in part, by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I think it was really important this season to really ask ourselves, ‘Where are we as a country, where are we as a population?’ As classical musicians we are steeped in this notion that Western classical music is the highest art form that we know,” said Kelley. “But we ignore that even classical music had influences from other sources. Sphinx Virtuosi has always been an organization that has definitely not shied away from showcasing the work of artists of color.”

One of those artists is Sphinx Virtuosi double bass player Xavier Foley. The program features a recent work by him called “Ev’ry Voice,” a musical homage to James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem.

“Xavier Foley weaves the anthem into the orchestral part,” said Kelley. “It’s layered with other harmonic textures. You definitely notice its presence, but it’s also more about the bigger picture that he’s composed.”

In addition to Sunday’s performance, members of Sphinx Virtuosi will take up a virtual artist residency next week, working with musicians from Bridgeport high schools.

“In these Zoom sessions with students, I’ve been very impressed with the variety of questions centered around, very specifically developing their musicianship or targeting music as a career,” said Sphinx Virtuosi violist Robert Alvardo Switala. “It’s awesome to see them so focused on their own repertoire and their own steps toward a professional career.”

Both the performance and the artist residency are presented by Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts. Sunday’s virtual performance gets underway at 3 p.m.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series “Where Art Thou?” Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of “Morning Edition”, and later of “All Things Considered.”

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