The Sphinx Chamber Orchestra, with the Harlem Quartet and violinist Elena Urioste, were the guest artists for the Dorothy Meyer Secosan Memorial Concert at Brevard College’s Porter Center for Performing Arts. Due to the generosity of Mr. Cornell Secosan, the musicians will perform again an interactive concert for the area’s fifth graders. I, for one, can’t wait for them to hear these outstanding young artists, for in many ways they exemplify the bright future of classical music.
The chamber orchestra, led by Maestro Damon Gupton, is composed of alumni of the national Sphinx Competition for young Black and Latino string players. They are currently on their second national tour. The Harlem Quartet is comprised of first-place laureates from the Sphinx Competition. Its distinguished members are Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violins, Juan-Miguel Hernandez, viola, and Desmond Neysmith, cello. Featured violinist Urioste, who was a first-place laureate in both the junior and senior divisions of the Sphinx Competition, is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and is currently doing graduate work at The Juilliard School with Joel Smirnoff. She has performed with many major orchestras in the US and at music festivals abroad. In sum, these musicians are accomplished and well disciplined beyond their young years, and communicate a sense of joy in making music which lifts the heart.
The mission of both orchestra and quartet is to advance diversity in classical music while engaging young and new audiences through performances of varied repertoire. They typically program lesser-known works by minority composers along with those in the standard repertoire. This program began with Mozart’s three-movement Divertimento for Strings in F. I was struck immediately by the beauty of their sound — impeccably in tune, carefully balanced among the sections — and their technical prowess. They play with utmost sensitivity and intelligence to the musical detail, large and small, giving the Mozart an elegant, polished performance.
Next came Astor Piazzolla’s "Autumn in Buenos Aires," a movement from Los Cuatros Estaciones Porteños (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) for Violin and Orchestra. Influenced by Vivaldi’s famous set of “seasonal” concerti for the violin, Piazzolla’s work took the form of a tango- flavored concert piece that was by turns soulfully languid and irrepressibly ebullient. Violin soloist Urioste shared the spotlight with principal cellist Tony Rymer as they each played extended, virtuosic solo passages. No matter what tempo changes occurred, nor what liberties the soloists took with each of their parts, the orchestra was with them in flawless ensemble.
Following this was Guido Gavilan’s Mi Menor Conga, a work originally composed for solo violin and piano and written for the composer’s young violinist son, Ilmar (who is now first violinist with the Harlem Quartet). It is a piece inspired by the carnival season in Cuba, and its infectious Afro-Cuban rhythms were both played and drummed on the instruments. Once the piece was underway, Gavilan danced onto the stage, drumming in concert with the orchestra on his violin, then, smiling, danced off to the delight of the audience.
Ending the first half was the first movement from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, richly sonorous without being overplayed, and Wynton Marsalis’s "Hellbound Highball," one of seven movements from At the Octoroon Balls for string quartet. Premiered in May, 1995 at Alice Tully Hall, the work was inspired by the mixing of various people at the Octoroon Balls in New Orleans. This movement as a depiction of a “highball,” a locomotive “that has priority to travel as fast as its rails will allow,” was a vehicle for various sound effects and string techniques played in stops and starts, then at warp speed.
After intermission came two works. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra in D minor featured violinists Urioste and White in a very brisk rendition that allowed us to hear larger structures in the concerto. The soloists’ playing was beautifully matched in gesture, and the orchestra remained at a consistently “supportive” volume, no matter how quiet the soloists got. The exquisite second, slow movement was one of the crown jewels of the evening.
The program ended with Delights and Dances by Michael Abels, a work inspired by the vision of the Sphinx Organization and commissioned by the ASCAP Foundation/Irving Caesar Fund for the Sphinx Organization’s tenth anniversary. Now revised, it’s a concerto for string quartet and orchestra in three sections without pause. The introduction begins with solo cello, then viola, and then dialogue with other quartet members until all are playing. The second section had blues-inflected jazz licks, with some playful “dueling” and other tongue-in-cheek shenanigans among the quartet members. The final section, a sort of hoedown, pulled out all the stops in the idiom of traditional, competitive bluegrass fiddling. The piece was interesting musically and simply a joy to hear.
One would be hard pressed to hear a finer young orchestra, more eclectic or interesting programming, or a more accomplished young quartet. Bravo Tutti, and thanks for a splendid evening.