Sphinx Virtuosi and Catalyst Quartet Bring Welcome Diversity to Classical Music

Daniel Hautzinger, Staff Writer

Some complain that classical music was written by dead white guys, is performed by white musicians and listened to by white senior citizens. There seems to be a pattern.

Luckily, there are groups like the Sphinx Virtuosi and the Catalyst Quartet to combat this trend. Both ensembles, consisting of alumni of the Sphinx Competition for young Black and Latino string players, serve not only to foster performer diversity but also to promote works by non-white composers. This mission was clearly on display on Tuesday night, when the two ensembles presented a concert in Finney Chapel.

The program began with a suite featuring solo violin, Four Seasons in Buenos Aires by the Argentinian composer Ástor Piazzolla and arranged by Leonid Desyatnikov. Piazzolla is known for his unique combination of tango and Western classical idioms, making for a highly rhythmic and dynamic form of art music. The suite form of Four Seasons was created to be played alongside Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and the works share both a focus on virtuosity and even specific motives and figurations. Bryan Hernandez-Luch, soloist on the first and last movements, performed in a style that matched his appearance: suave, romantic and dapper, with not a note out of place. Fourteen-year-old Adé Williams impressed by vigorously slashing out melodies and complex figurations over violent accompaniments.

Following the excitement of Four Seasons, the concert took a brief downturn with Tenebrae by Osvaldo Golijov. Despite the Catalyst Quartet’s velvety tones, the work was bland and uninspired.

But Jessie Montgomery’s Strum quickly brought back the fun energy of the first piece. Montgomery, only 30 years old, not only composes but also performs as part of the Catalyst Quartet and Sphinx Virtuosi. Under her sure guidance, melodies emerged from between the cracks of tightly nested repeating cells and snaked in and out of the pulsing framework, occasionally taking wayward dips before retreating to allow a new theme to materialize.

In the last movement of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Lamentations, the only unaccompanied piece of the program, 18-year-old Gabriel Cabezas raced through with reserve despite the piece’s perpetual motion.

Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Suite for Strings was the furthest removed from the other pieces. Villa-Lobos may be seen as the godfather of Latin-American classical composers, taking European forms and infusing them with native themes and rhythms in the first few decades of the twentieth century. His Suite for Strings could have come from a late-19th century European composer, but this didn’t diminish its impact. The Sphinx Virtuosi brought impeccable playing despite their lack of a conductor, bowing exactly in unison and perfectly balancing every part so that all voices were evident, but the lead always soared. The third movement was a highlight of the concert, sounding true to its title of Air de Ballet by conjuring an aristocratic court full of graceful dancers.

The program concluded with the Finale of Alberto Ginastera’s Concerto for Strings, Op. 33, with neurotic screams that howled and caused intense disquiet. The psychological terror of the piece would be a perfect match for the scenes of descending madness in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

It would be cruel to leave an audience in such a state of terror, so an encore of “Starters,” a youthful and pleasant piece by Jessie Montgomery, followed the Ginastera and led the audience back to sanity.