Sphinx Virtuosi Coming To Gates Concert Hall March 20

Music journalist Steve Roby interviews Alex Gonzalez, Sphinx Virtuosi’s Concertmaster and Assistant Professor at CU Boulder’s College of Music. Comprised of 18 talented black and Latinx artists, Sphinx Virtuosi’s goal is to evolve and transform the face of classical music through artistic excellence. They will perform on Wednesday, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. in the June Swaner Gates Concert Hall.

Steve Roby: Alex, welcome to KGNU Community Radio.

Alex Gonzalez: Thank you so much for having me.

Roby: Could you tell our listeners about the Sphinx organization and how you got involved?

Gonzalez: The Sphinx organization has a mission statement that it’s for a social justice arts organization, and it’s dedicated to transforming the lives of others through the power of diversity in the arts. Over its 27-year period, the organization has really lived up to that.

The main core of the organization is the Sphinx Competition. This annual string competition is for black and Latinx string players, and this happens in Detroit, where the organization is based. It was the flagship [event] that started the organization.

And since then, they’ve branched out into many educational opportunities. They have lots of initiatives for beginners, like public school programs. They have the Sphinx Performance Academy, which is a full scholarship program for pre-college string players across the United States.

In addition to that, we have some administrative support for aspiring arts administrators. The sector that I’m involved in mostly is the performing side. So, in addition to the roster of soloists, they have a couple of chamber groups they’ve started, like the Harlem Quartet and the Catalyst Quartets.

They’ve also started the Exigence Vocal Ensemble, which is one of their newer groups. And lastly is the Sphinx Virtuosi, which is the one that I’m a part of, which, as you said, is a set of 18 string players, and we play in an unconducted orchestra that tours all over the country.

Roby: How did you get involved and learn about the program?

Gonzalez: So, a long time ago, when I was still in college,  I ended up competing. The year after, and after competing a couple of times, I received an invitation to join the Virtuosi at a concert, and now it’s been quite some time, almost ten years at this point. The rest is history.

Roby: As an ensemble, how does sphinx virtuosi work?

Gonzalez: It’s an unconducted orchestra, and the way the orchestras run without a conductor, we’re all essentially leaders in the group, and we have the ability to craft our interpretation, make artistic decisions, speak up during rehearsal, which is really wonderful because we have so many different backgrounds, different ideas, different perspectives in the group, but as you can imagine,  that is, very different from having one conductor that kind of makes all of the decisions in the interpretation.

We have a lengthy but democratic rehearsal process at the beginning of a tour, taking in everyone’s ideas, creating an interpretation, and refining from there as we perform pieces.

Roby: Well, certainly, there must be some artistic differences between the 18 individual soloists. How do you resolve it all?

Gonzalez: You’re totally right, and it’s very natural to have artistic differences. One thing that ties us all together is that we all have a shared goal and mission that transcends any conflicts that might arise. We don’t always agree on interpretation, but the thing that we do agree on is, number one, excellence on stage.

We want to play the best concert we can. We want to honor these composers of the music and the audience by putting on a great show. We also aim to amplify artists of color, whether as the artists on stage or the composers we play.

A lot of these smaller issues do happen. I won’t lie, but the broader mission holds us together, so we can always transcend that and find a solution in rehearsal.

Roby: When working with all these individuals, you must have some success stories of people who have gone on to bigger things than this group you’re working with. Can you share some stories?

Gonzalez: The folks in the group now all have their individual lives throughout the year. We come together throughout the calendar year at different periods to tour, but we have several professional chamber musicians. I teach at a university.

We have a few professors in the group, some folks in other professional groups, and some who have successful solo careers. Something that I love about the group is that the Sphinx organization, in general, is that we really amplify our artists. So, in the past, we’ve commissioned music by orchestra members, one of which, most notably, is Jessie Montgomery, who’s doing extremely well and just won a Grammy a couple of weeks ago. She was a member of the ensemble and the Catalyst Quartet and is taking over the world with her incredible artistry. And, this season, ensemble members commission two pieces that we’ll be performing here in Denver, so they’ll be here.

One of which is a double bass concerto. The composer will be performing his piece. We have a commission by one of our cello players who won’t be performing, but he’s generally in the ensemble. So, there’s a wide array of success stories within Virtuosi.

Roby: Sphinx Virtuosi released their debut album last year. It’s called Songs for Our Times. And I’m going to play a track featuring Valerie Coleman, and it’s called “Tracing Visions for String Orchestra.” What can you tell me about this track and Valerie Coleman?

Gonzalez: Valerie Coleman is a prolific American composer and a flute player who was in the Imani Winds for many years. She created a two-movement work called “Tracing Visions, ” reminding us of our shared humanity.

The piece has a real sense of duality. The first movement is titled “Till,” and it is titled after Emmett Till and speaks about the violence and murders that are taken out on black men in America. The second half of that movement has a really moving section titled “The Anthem of Parents,” this section of the movement is about the toll it takes on the families of these victims, and that’s a powerful movement.

The second movement you will play is titled “Amandla,” meaning power in Zulu. That movement celebrates the power and resilience after struggle. The interesting thing about that movement is the opening violin rhythm that you hear that starts the piece, and you’ll hear it throughout the movement; it is the word Sphinx, written out in Morse Code. She took the rhythm of Morse Code and put it into the music. This celebratory work also celebrates Sphinx in its own way. It’s a special, beautiful movement that I hope your listeners enjoy.

Roby: Can you give us a preview of the upcoming March 20th show at Gates Concert Hall? What can concertgoers look forward to?

Gonzalez: We’re excited to perform in Denver, and I’m also very excited to perform in my home. I’m really looking forward to sharing this group with our audiences here. This program includes four commissions, so four new works by Black and Latinx composers that we are performing this season, two of which I already mentioned; those two pieces are by Sphinx Virtuosi alums and current members, one of which is Xavier Foley, who won the Sphinx Virtuosi Strings Competition many years ago on double bass and is a prolific artist on his own. He wrote a double bass concerto for two basses. He’ll be performing that here. We also have a piece by Quentin Bloch, who is a cellist in the orchestra and a current student at USC. He’s finishing up his graduate work there.

Two pieces by Virtuosi alumni will be in the program. We also have two commissions by two other composers, one of whom is named Javier Farias, a Chilean composer. The other is by Andrea Casarubios, and she’s a composer and cellist based in New York City, to round out the program. We have two other pieces, a beautiful piece by Adolphus Hale Stork and our larger scale, Coleridge Taylor Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No. 2, titled “Generations,” a multiple-movement work that closes out the program. So, there’s a lot of new music and something for everybody in our program. I hope the audience will enjoy what we’ve put together.

Roby: It sounds like a wonderful evening of music, Alex. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you today.


The Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver and Friends of Chamber Music proudly present Sphinx Virtuosi on Wednesday, March 20, at 7:30 p.m. in the June Swaner Gates Concert Hall. Tickets are on sale at newmancenterpresents.com or by phone at 303.871.7720.


This interview has been edited for clarity and continuity. Courtesy photos were provided.

About the author: From the San Francisco Bay Area to the Big Island of Hawaii, Steve Roby has worked as a journalist, entertainment photographer, magazine editor, radio host (San Francisco, Hawaii, and Denver), and video documentarian. Since 1989, he has been writing about music and interviewing musicians. Roby is also a published author of three books, one on the L.A. Times Non-Fiction Hardcover Best Seller List.

Steve Roby

Steve Roby

From the San Francisco Bay Area to the Big Island of Hawaii, Steve Roby has worked as a music journalist, entertainment photographer, magazine editor, radio host (San Francisco, Hawaii, and Denver), and video documentarian. Roby is also a published author of three books, one on the L.A. Times Non-Fiction Hardcover Best Seller List. He’s been featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone (x2), and Billboard. He’s now based in Denver.

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