Songs for Our Times

Songs for Our Times

What links eight pieces from three centuries, by composers of four different nationalities? “It’s a collection of works that talk about the times that we’re living in today,” says Bill Neri, a viola player with Sphinx Virtuosi, a chamber orchestra made up of Black and Latinx artists, and the first such group to record for DG. For Sphinx violinist Alex Gonzalez, the album Songs for Our Times comprises works that open a space for reflection and dialogue on “topics that affect us today and affect us in the past, present—and will continue in the future.” The relevance of Global Warming (1990) by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Abels might seem immediately apparent. In fact, it’s a celebration of the thawing of global relations that ended the Cold War. “You think of climate change, and then you hear the music and read about the context, and it actually makes you pivot,” Neri tells Apple Music Classical. “There’s an opportunity for us to come together.” It’s a vital point: important messages don’t have to be conveyed with a frown. For Gonzalez, the life-affirming fusion of Baroque tradition and popular dance in the 1990 Fuga con Pajarillo by Venezuelan composer Aldemaro Romero brings a burst of “variety and panache.” Valerie Coleman’s 2022 Sphinx co-commission Tracing Visions, meanwhile, begins its story in the contemporary US. Its first movement, “Till,” deals with the racist murder of Emmett Till. “She’s written a new section into the piece titled ‘Anthem of Parents,’ thinking of how parents process the deaths of their children,” says Gonzalez. “The second movement is titled ‘Amandla!‘ [which is] Zulu for ‘power’. It’s much more upbeat, celebratory, fast-paced.” The name of the ensemble is encoded (in Morse) into the music’s unquenchable rhythm. Carlos Simon’s violin solo Between Worlds from 2019 draws its shifting colors from the paintings of Bill Traylor. “There’s slow, brooding music, there’s music that sounds a bit more impressionistic and there’s also a jazz and rock feeling,” says Gonzalez “It goes pretty hard at times: through a lot of different worlds.” Florence Price’s 1935 String Quartet No. 2 is the work of a composer who, says Neri, “wrote really romantic music. But the sentiment of her upbringing—growing up in the segregated Jim Crow South—is right there, too. It’s telling that story in a language that a regular concert audience would find familiar.” And as Gonzalez adds: “It’s also a nice moment of meditation and reflection before we go to the pretty intense, dark piece by Jessie [Montgomery].” Written for Sphinx cellist Thomas Mesa in 2022, Divided pits the cello’s lone voice against the sometimes threatening mass of the string orchestra. “It feels intentionally very chaotic,” says Gonzalez, “It’s very visceral.” The idea of challenge is also central to Sisifo na cidade grande (also from 2022) by Brazilian composer Ricardo Herz. “It’s dark but it’s also a carnival,” says Neri. The Sisyphus of Greek myth pursues his endless struggle amid the energy of urban Brazil. “There’s this rhythm, and a gorgeous lyrical melody in the middle of the piece: but all the while it feels like you’re in a massive, pumping city.” In conclusion, what could be more affirmative than the final “Presto” of the violin sonata that Beethoven originally wrote in 1803 for George Bridgetower (1778-1860), a violin virtuoso of African descent—here transformed into a vibrant concerto grosso by Sphinx Virtuosi member Rubén Rengel? “We wanted to increase awareness of Bridgetower—that’s part of our mission,” says Gonzalez. Neri agrees. “Whenever we can identify an impactful message to impart to our audience, that’s a direction we go in. This is a great combination of getting a story told, of lifting a voice of our own—and having an impactful song to share.”

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