By Charlotte Dutton
On Sunday, September 20th, Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series presented The Sphinx Chamber Orchestra and Harlem Quartet. Rarely do I hear such glee or see such joy in onstage, especially on every face of the twenty-plus musicians onstage during yesterday’s concert. Both groups simply exuded a sense of feeling privileged to be playing such great music.
The Sphinx Chamber Orchestra and Harlem Quartet are rich in diversity, musicality, enthusiasm and passion of music. During Michael Abel’s Delights and Dances for String Quartet and Orchestra, every musician was so focused on the music, so enthralled in the sounds emanating both from the orchestra as a whole and the individual soloists it was hard—impossible—not to be entirely caught up in the moment. I’m not sure if I even breathed during the final hoedown.
Conductor Damon Gupton led the orchestra through a diverse program of old, new, famous and obscure pieces and composers. We jumped from Austria to Argentina to Cuba to Russia and, finally, to New York all in under an hour. It was incredible how beautifully each piece illustrated its origins and how surprising how well such an eclectic program flowed. The Mozart is such a perfect encapsulation of classical Vienna, the Gavilán was a piece composed for his son (violinist Ilmar Gavilán of the Harlem Quartet) and inspired by Cuba and Cuban rhythms, and the Piazzolla’s Autumn in Buenos Aires is heavily influenced by tango, a dance originating in his native Argentina. The group is drenched in diversity and represents all cultures and all music.
The program opened with the incredibly virtuosic rendition of our National Anthem played by violinists Elena Urioste and Melissa White. These two women continued to prove great artistic and musical prowess throughout the concert, Urioste in Astor Piazzolla’s Autumn in Buenos Aires, White in Wynton Marsalis’s Hellbound Highball and Ables’ Delights and Dances for String Quartet and Orchestra, and both women in J.S. Bach’s famous Concerto for Two Violins and Strings in D Minor. The women showed dignified and understated musical understanding in Bach’s double concerto, especially in the sweetly lyrical second movement, while showing their technical dexterity in the other pieces.
Aside from being a great soloist, Melissa White dazzled us in the chamber music context as well. She was second violinist in the Harlem Quartet and played Hellbound Highball, a movement from Marsalis’s At the Octoroon Balls. Before the string quartet began, cellist Desmond Neysmith gave a brief explanation of what the movement was—a train bound for hell—and each member of the quartet played a musical example of train sounds: screeching of the breaks, the bell, the horn and the Doppler effect. Giving this brief explanation both humanized the performers and made the piece so much more fun for the audience because we had little things to listen for throughout the performance.
“Happiness is a how, not a what. It is a talent, not an object.” If poet Herman Hesse is correct, than the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra and Harlem quartet are immensely talented both musically and happily. There is also something right and timely about the Sphinx Organization and its offshoots. In a world where many classical musicians are worried about becoming obsolete, the Sphinx Organization has created a way to excite and animate audiences and potential musicians who would have never been exposed to the world of classical music. Brava, Sphinx!