Program Notes for Sphinx Virtuosi voiced by George Lopez

Notes on the Program

Notes Provided by Sphinx Virtuosi – Voiced by George Lopez, Bowdoin College Artist in Residence

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Xavier Foley (b 1994)
Ev’ry Voice

This work is an homage and pays tribute to the Black National Anthem. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson. Johnson was an American writer and civil rights activist, who also led the NAACP. Its first performance was in celebration of President Lincoln’s birthday, on February 12, 1900, in Jacksonville, FL, performed by a group of schoolchildren. The poem was set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and as a complete work, adopted by the NAACP as its official anthem. We often say that music is the soundtrack of our history and our lives. Today, we know “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the soundtrack of the African American Civil Rights Movement. Xavier Foley, a brilliant bassist and composer, the winner of the Avery Fisher Career Grant and a Sphinx Competition Laureate, created two separate versions of a work “Lift Ev’ry Voice”, commissioned by the Sphinx Organization. One of the versions is set for the Sphinx Virtuosi, while the second incorporates use of Sphinx’s professional vocal ensemble, Exigence. This piece was created in 2020 as a special feature under Sphinx’s program umbrella of “Land of the Free”, which illuminates the wealth of musical talent among American composers. Appearing now as part of our “This is America” digital program, this work has become a beloved standalone. The inspiration for the commission came at a time when the ideals of unity were invoked amidst uncertainty, tragedy and hope. In his music, Foley brings out the sonority and virtuosity of the string instruments to feature the familiar melodic material, while uncovering new timbres and sounds, almost symbolically encouraging all of us to look and listen anew, beyond the isolation of the global pandemic and the racial and cultural divide in our country. Today’s soundtrack for the hopeful times ahead are ushered in by Foley’s new tribute to a treasured piece of the American historical and musical heritage.

Florence Price (1887 – 1953)
Andante Cantabile from A Minor Quartet

The A-minor string quartet is Florence Price’s second work of its kind, which was preceded by her G- major quartet in 1929. In terms of the style and language, this work embraces a more mature, later harmonic and melodic profile of the 20th century. Importantly, this work offers insight into the soulful musical materials paying homage to the composer’s heritage. The gentle, lyrical and song-like quality of the second movement is both refreshing and comforting in character. The full work also invokes the style of the African lively dance called Juba. The last movement offers an almost improvisatory breadth of the composer’s fluent writing, rounding out the work as a fine example of the string quartet medium.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875 – 1912)
Four Novelletten

I. Allegro Moderato
III. Andante con moto

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Novelletten for strings is a set of short movements written in an elegant style of the Romantic era. Also a gifted violinist, the composer imagined and executed the piece perfectly for the instruments. The set offers an opportunity to showcase the solo violin in a virtuosic light, in addition to using the entire ensemble to its fullest scale. The work was first dedicated to Miss Ethel Barns, a composer and virtuoso violinist who performed and premiered several of Coleridge-Taylor’s works. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912) was the son of a white, English mother and a Sierra Leonean medical student who met in London. Raised in his grandfather’s household by his single mother, he showed his evident musical talent at a young age. A scholarship student at the Royal Conservatory, Coleridge-Taylor became increasingly interested in his own heritage and the concept of Pan-Africanism, which led him to study the history of Africans in America. He led the London Handel Society in the early 1900s and served as composition professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity College of Music. This remarkably talented composer met his untimely death at age 37, but his legacy is continuing to inform and inspire the classical canon today.


Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)

Banner is a tribute to the 200th Anniversary of the Star Spangled Banner, which was officially declared the American National Anthem in 1814 under the penmanship of Francis Scott Key. Scored for solo string quartet and string orchestra, Banner is a rhapsody on the theme of the StarSpangled Banner. Drawing on musical and historical sources from various world anthems and patriotic songs, I’ve made an attempt to answer the question: “What does an anthem for the 21st century sound like in today’s multi-cultural environment?”

I was commissioned by theProvidence String Quartet and Community MusicWorks to write Anthem in 2009: a tribute to the historical election of Barack Obama. In that piece I wove together the theme from the Star Spangled Banner with the commonly named Black National Anthem: Lift Every Voice and Sing, by James Weldon Johnson (which coincidentally share the exact same phrase structure).

Banner picks up where Anthem left off by using a similar backbone source in its middle section, but expands further both in the amount of references and also in the role play of the string quartet as the individual voice working both with and against the larger community of the orchestra behind them. The structure is loosely based on traditional marching band form where there are several strains or contrasting sections, preceded by an introduction, and I have drawn on the drum line chorus as a source for the rhythmic underpinning in the finale. Within the same tradition, I have attempted to evoke the breathing of a large brass choir as it approaches the climax of the “trio” section.

A variety of other cultural Anthems and American folk songs and popular idioms interact to form various textures in the finale section, contributing to a multi-layered fanfare. The Star Spangled Banner is an ideal subject for exploration in contradictions. For most Americans the song represents a paradigm of liberty and solidarity against fierce odds, and for others it implies a contradiction between the ideals of freedom and the realities of injustice and oppression. As a culture, it is my opinion that Americans are perpetually in search of ways to express and celebrate our ideals of freedom—a way to proclaim, “we’ve made it!” as if the very action of saying it aloud makes it so. And for many of our nation’s people, that was the case.


Andrea Casarrubios (b. 1988)

SEVEN for solo cello (2020) is a tribute to the essential workers during the global COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to those who lost lives and suffered from the crisis. The piece ends with seven bell-like sounds, alluding to New York’s daily 7 PM tribute during the lockdown – the moment when New Yorkers clapped from their windows, connecting with each other and expressing appreciation for those on the front lines.


Ricardo Hurz (b. 1978)
Mourinho and Inocente

These two pieces have the northeast Brazilian as their atmosphere and were written initially for accompanied violin. Recorded in different versions on several albums, by the Brazilian violinist and composer Ricardo Herz as soloist, their most recent version is at “Nova Música Brasileira Para Cordas” with Camerata Romeu and Ricardo Herz. Herz himself adapted this orchestral version especially for this Sphinx Virtuosi tour.

Mourinho is a forró, written in 2001. Ricardo uses several rhythms and comping techniques for the orchestra, based on the percussion instruments and claves of the forró style, using the string instruments as they were the zabumbas, triangles and accordions, typical of northeast Brazil. Inocente is a Baião-Coco, characterized by its first lyric melodie (baião) and a second rhythmic one (côco). In this rendition, the orchestra is fulfilling the role of the singer and the band at once.


Alberto Ginastera (1916 – 1983)
Concerto per corde, op. 33

Alberto Ginastera composed his String Quartet No. 2 in 1958. His Concerto per Corde, Op. 33 (Concerto for Strings) came 7 years after, as an adaptation of the quartet for full string orchestra that. The new first movement, Variazioni Per I Solisti, is really a raw-sounding and clearly challenging theme and variations, where soloists lead prominently in a complex dialogue with the orchestra. This is followed by Scherzo Fantastico: Presto, which leaves a listener with a sense of chaos, disorientation, a frantic chase, perhaps. The Adagio Angoscioso explores the concept of sound from a contemplative perspective, paying tribute to the past and incorporating traditional melodic elements. The piece concludes with the Finale Furioso: colorful, rhythmic, almost breathless. This movement showcases folk idioms, changing meters, hidden melodic ideas from preceding movements, all expressed through excellent writing for the string medium (much like Bartok, an inspiration behind much of Ginastera’s work). Get immersed in the ferocious energy of the unyielding rhythm and virtuosic brilliance of the sound.


Sphinx Virtuosi performs Thursday, March 31, 2022 at 7PM at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.
Click here for information and tickets.