Review: Sphinx Symphony at the Kennedy Center

February 6, 2023, 4:30 PM · The Sphinx Organization continued its celebration of transforming our cultural landscape on Tuesday, January 31 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

Sphinx and Exigence
The Sphinx Symphony Orchestra and EXIGENCE Vocal Ensemble. Photo courtesy the Sphinx Organization.

Personally, the evening was a first for me: after many years of performing in the Kennedy Center with ensembles including the Washington Chorus and the Choral Arts Society of Washington, this was my first experience as a Kennedy Center concertgoer. Originally scheduled for January 2022, this concert was postponed due to the swift rise of the COVID-19 "Omicron" variant, and deepest gratitude and congratulations should be shared with Sphinx, the Kennedy Center, Washington Performing Arts and the Washington Chorus for their shared commitment to ensuring the rescheduling of this event, one which encapsulated our shared humanity in ways both timely and celebratory.

Both the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra and the EXIGENCE Vocal Ensemble made their Kennedy Center debuts on this evening. Formed in 2000, the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra is truly unique: the professional all Black and Latinx orchestra includes members of leading American orchestras, faculty members of leading music institutions, and Sphinx Competition laureates. The orchestra usually convenes annually for the Sphinx Competition, and is always featured in performance as a "stand-alone" ensemble during the event (the most recent performance featured Memphis Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Kalena Bovell leading the orchestra in a joyful performance of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Danse Negre); however, this evening featured the orchestra as a dynamic performing ensemble.

Phoenix Symphony Music Director Tito Muñoz led the orchestra in the first half of the concert: recognized as one of the most gifted conductors of our time and an active proponent of new music, Muñoz was the ideal choice to lead the orchestra through a program including works from the late nineteenth century to those of recent years.

Paying homage to connections with the nation’s capital, the concert began with Carlos Simon’s heroic and cinematic Motherboxx Connection. Originally from Atlanta, Simon is currently the Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence and a recipient of the 2021 Sphinx Medal of Excellence. Taking its inspiration from the work of the collaborative duo known as Black Kirby, Motherboxx Connection is definitely "superhero music", with soaring melodies akin to heroic flight moving throughout the orchestra and delivered with incredible precision under Muñoz’ leadership.

While "diversity, equity, and inclusion" may seem to be the mouvement du jour, there are examples of championship that have existed long before this time in history, and the birth of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for Orchestra is definitely an example. The Ballade came to life at the 1898 Three Choirs Festival through Edward Elgar’s recommendation, and its successful premiere marked the beginning of Coleridge-Taylor’s international reputation. It must be noted that Coleridge-Taylor’s works were enjoyed in the United States during his lifetime: his initial trips to the United States were sponsored by the Washington DC-based Coleridge-Taylor Society, which was established in 1901 both as a vehicle for the performance of his works and to encourage African-Americans.

The Ballade was composed near the end of classical music’s "Victorian Era" (1837-1901) and the rise of Mahlerian late Romanticism. As orchestral forces grew to the complements we experience today and the resultant subconscious expectation of cacophonic sound, Muñoz and the Sphinx Symphony played with a captivating dynamic range, never sacrificing clarity of orchestration and detail throughout.

Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout came next on the program. Commissioned and premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra (both virtually in 2020 and at Carnegie Hall in 2021), the work pays homage to our collective humanity as it honors both the thousands of courageous frontline workers and, as shared in the title, the ritual of "cheers, claps, clangings of pots and pants, and shouts" ringing through the air worldwide at the appointed hour. Brilliantly orchestrated, the work encapsulates the isolation, uncertainty, shared compassion, and celebration that was our global shared experience – and the celebratory shouts from within the orchestra and the audience served as a precursor to the second half of the program.

The uniqueness of the Sphinx Organization’s success is a demonstrated commitment to long-term investment in artists who have participated in the annual competition. The soloists in Michael Abels’ Delights and Dances (which was written in celebration of the Sphinx Competition’s tenth anniversary) – violinists Rainel Joubert and Ruben Rengel, violist Jordan Bak, and cellist Christine Lamprea – are all competition laureates who have continued developing performing careers. Drawing on Abels’ heritage, the work includes elements of jazz, bluegrass, and Latin dance idioms, and the audience responded as if experiencing live jazz improvisation as the four soloists explored and playfully shared motives, melodies and riffs while being accompanied by an orchestra that truly knew how to swing.

Choral music started the second half, with soprano Aundi Marie Moore, the EXIGENCE Vocal Ensemble and members of the Washington Chorus sharing a compelling reading of the spiritual "Fix Me, Jesus". The connection with Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout was evident through this thoughtful programming: spirituals are the musical embodiment of every emotion experienced by enslaves African-Americans. While the text of "Fix Me" may indicate sorrow and fervent prayer for redemption, this performance was glowing with hope.

We are so fortunate to have Eugene Rogers as a member of DC’s arts community. Since his arrival, listeners have praised both a new energy within the Washington Chorus and his incredibly thoughtful programming. All was evident on this evening as he shared that the following selections, ranging from chorus alone to the full complement of chorus and orchestra, would be performed without interruption.

Rogers was more than correct in his assessment, as the second half was truly compelling. Also written during the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuelan composer Carlos Cordero’s Holding Our Breath (with text by Julie Flanders) was a journey through despair to optimism, complete with audible gasps for air to almost meditative release. This was immediately followed by Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, a seven-moment choral and orchestral work based on the final words of seven Black men who were killed by police or authority figures.

Written in the structure of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, Rogers’ fifteen-minute work originally met the same violent reaction as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Fortunately, as the Rite of Spring has become a concert hall standard, Thompson’s piece is clearly earning its rightful place in the concert repertoire.

There is so much to share about Seven Last Words, and I can only honestly say that this is a concert piece that should be experienced live. This is a brilliant composition that combines music of the medieval period, classical fugal techniques, and striking sonic elements that perfectly underscore the harrowing text. All being memorable, the most compelling moments include the defiant fugal setting of "What are you following me for? (Trayvon Martin)", the combination of optimism and unease of "Mom, I’m Going to College (Amadou Diallo)", and the visceral recreation of gunshots while single notes pulsed like a heart monitor in "You Shot Me. You Shot Me (Oscar Grant)!"

The profundity of Seven Last Words was immediately followed by "Glory", which was written for the 2014 film Selma. Capturing the passion and unwavering determination of the Civil Rights movement, this was a reminder that the call for justice, diversity, inclusion, and respect is ongoing.

Reading the lyrics of "Glory", I am reminded that the work continues, and I again share deepest gratitude for the Sphinx Organization, Washington Performing Arts, and the Kennedy Center for their shared commitment to presenting this monumental program, one that was inspirational for everyone present and a true portrayal of our cultural and social landscape.

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February 7, 2023 at 03:14 PM · What an amazing article! I definitely will keep all these performers & works in mind. All of them have given and are giving a great contribution for and to all humanity!

February 7, 2023 at 08:21 PM · Samuel, thanks so much for this excellent article! I wish I lived in the area and had been able to attend the concert. I will definitely seek out the repertoire you highlighted.

February 7, 2023 at 08:23 PM · What a vivid description of this concert, Samuel, thank you so much for sharing this with us!

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