Sphinx Chamber Orchestra October 24, 2009
By Glen Creason
The Sphinx Organization started out trying to encourage classical music artists in the African-American and Latino communities by sponsoring competitions and creating a national arts program. In just thirteen short years they have been able to reach over fifty-five thousand students and have been able to create a truly fine Chamber Orchestra. From this tree the Harlem Quartet has branched and play alongside their brothers and sisters in music. Part of the mission of these groups is to celebrate diversity in composers and performers which brings us to our Saturday evening in Cerritos. The overall feel was of understated elegance and the true beauty of the evening, excellent music aside, was that after five minutes of playing the audience had forgotten race and was enthralled by some superb young artists. The performances were as good as you would hear in any hall in America and several of the soloists may be seen on all of those stages before they are through.
The choice of program was a perfect mix of familiar and esoteric including the exceptional concert finishing “Delights and Dances for String Quartet” by young Michael Abels that echoed Aaron Copeland with its broad scope while melding great American musical traditions like Jazz, Blues and Bluegrass into a colorful and satisfying whole. This engaging concerto in three sections seemed to travel all over America and this folksy canvas was splashed with bright colors and intricate harmonies. The first half also featured fine contemporary compositions like Wynton Marsalis’ strangely playful “Hellbound Highway” which gave the Harlem Quartet room to fill up the hall with the sounds of a train headed for oblivion. Also the wonderful Cuban tune “Mi Menor Conga” remained in the classical genre despite roots in Carnival music that turned violins, violas and cellos into percussion instruments and set some audience members bouncing in their seats. Astor Piazolla’s “Autumn in Buenos Aires” (Otono Porteno) with its gorgeous cello centerpiece succeeded in composition and the transcendent playing of the stunning violinist Elena Urioste.
Along with the more modern material the Orchestra offered fine performances of familiar but fresh sounding pieces from Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Bach. The Mozart “Divertimento for Strings in F Major, K.138” was gentle and not rushed with a sweet lyrical violin in the andante and a spirited finish in the Presto. The Tchaikovsky “Serenade for Strings” was appropriately grand and expansive in scale that extended the hall and had heads nodding in time and approval with the familiar melody. J.S. Bach’s “Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra in d minor” was maybe the most challenging piece since it is so well known but the perfect chemistry between the violins of Elena Urioste and Melissa White resulted in a passionate call and response that made it a memorable performance. The show was opened by the same two ladies who played a fine “National Anthem” that was overshadowed somewhat by an amateur karaokeist in the boxes overhead. Yet, the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra certainly triumphed on this night at the Performing Arts Center and would be welcomed back by all in the hall.