Shaping History: Sphinx Virtuosi’s "Songs for Our Times"
On March 26, Sarasota Orchestra presents Songs for Our Times by the Sphinx Virtuosi, a professional, self-conducted ensemble composed of 18 accomplished Black and Latinx artists and the flagship performing entity of the nationally recognized Sphinx Organization.
Songs for Our Times includes music by some of today’s brightest composers, and many of the powerful pieces of music on this program have been specifically commissioned by the Sphinx Virtuosi ensemble from composers of color.
“Music is meant to be a reflection of human experience, and it won't be well-rounded until it is accessible to any person from any background,” says Sphinx violist Kayla Cabrera. “To me, this is why uplifting contemporary composers of color is so crucial.”
When asked about a favorite piece of music from Songs for Our Times, violinist Maïthéna Girault finds it difficult to choose, but says she feels a special affinity for Tracing Visions by Valerie Coleman. Says Girault, “Her music is first an homage to the parents of the Uvalde massacre, Emmett Till, and Ruby Bridges' mother, as well as, in its second part, a celebration of the work done by the Sphinx Organization. When I read about Coleman’s inspiration behind the notes, I felt a tremendous amount of passion, of strength of spirit, of pride and hope for the future in her message.” Girault continues, “I experience this piece as acknowledging dark realities, past and present, in a way that feels particularly raw and instinctive. In parallel, the dancing, jubilant music of the second movement is an absolute thrill to jam to each time. Melodies and rhythms are continuously passed from section to section until the ensemble comes together in the very end for a final, glorious shout. It feels as though Coleman’s wish for our society is woven into the very fabric of the score, leading us into joyful unity. As a performer, I find this journey deeply stirring each concert.”
Cabrera names Jessie Mongtomery’s Divided as a personal favorite, both because of its music and the “phenomenal artistry” of its soloist, cellist Thomas Mesa. Cabrera adds, “It also feels neat to know that this work was composed by a former member of our ensemble!”
Cellist Quenton Xavier Blache is fond of Divided as well, and of Montgomery as a composer.
“I performed one of her orchestra pieces at the Aspen Music Festival in 2021,” says Blache. “Now to actually meet her, have her actively work with us on perfecting her cello concerto, and to overall be a part of such a historic event premiering her cello concerto is an incredible honor.”
“For me it is very difficult to choose just one piece of so many great works, but my biggest connections are with Villa-Lobos and Ricardo Herz,” says violinist (and native Brazilian) Thierry de Lucas. “Villa-Lobos is the composer who opened the doors for all Brazilian musicians and I really can feel a little bit of the Brazilian folk music and his love for Bach in the Bachianas [Brasileiras No.] 9. Then when we perform Sísifo na Cidade Grande [‘Sisyphus in the Big City’] by Herz, it is like the complete work of Brazilian classical/folk music, I can feel that I’m in the northeast of Brazil again.”
Through groundbreaking programs such as Songs for Our Times, the Sphinx Virtuosi ensemble—which celebrates its landmark 25th anniversary this season—champions creative living voices while reflecting on and paying tribute to the classical tradition through today's lens.
“For 25 years, [the Sphinx Organization] has made its artistic mission one of social change, chanting a long-ignored truth: that the arts should exist for all the people of their time and future,” says Girault. “As we work to bridge this gap, the many smiles, cheers, and nods at each Sphinx Virtuosi performance feel as though they carry that much more warmth and significance. This way, our concert tours make us ambassadors for change, hope and equality.”
De Lucas agrees. “Imagine the feeling of the people who played in the premieres of the symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn,” he says. “That’s exactly the way that I feel when we are on stage—I feel that Sphinx Virtuosi is not just playing history, but making and shaping it.”
To learn more and purchase tickets to the Sphinx Virtuosi’s Songs for Our Times, visit Sarasota Orchestra’s website or call the Box Office at 941-953-3434. All programs and featured artists are subject to change.