Contemporary Black and Latin “Tracing Visions”

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Violinist Clayton Penrose-Whitmore

The Sphinx Virtuosi, a professional chamber orchestra made up of 18 of the country’s top black and Latin classical musicians, who are mostly alumni of the internationally acclaimed Sphinx Competition, perform their “Tracing Visions” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday 3 April at 1:30 p.m. pm The visit is part of 25and-anniversary celebrations with members and programming reflecting the Detroit-based social justice organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.

Sphinx Virtuosi members work together as cultural ambassadors to reach new audiences through annual tours. A bit of a musical archeology project, “Tracing Visions” features composer, double bassist and Sphinx alumnus Xavier Foley’s arrangement of the “black national anthem.” Every voice; Jessie Montgomery, recipient of the 2020 Sphinx Medal of Excellence Banner commissioned by Sphinx and premiered in 2014; Andrea Casarrubios Seven honoring the heroes who fought to save lives during the pandemic, with soloist and winner of the Sphinx Competition, cellist Thomas Mesa; Ginastera’s Concerto for Strings; as well as gospel and Brazilian dance music. The ensemble presented this program for the first time on tour in the fall of 2021, marking the first live performances since the pandemic halted live concerts. Speaking of the Sphinx Virtuosi’s return to touring, Sphinx President and Artistic Director Afa S. Dworkin paid tribute to the musicians’ perseverance in dark times:

There is always light. If only we were brave enough to see it. If only we were brave enough to be. Many may remember those poignant words spoken by Amanda Gorman, the first person to be named the United States National Youth Poet Laureate, during the last presidential inauguration. There is always light, indeed, and bravery is something we all aspire to. It took real courage for these artists to continue to shine their light, to continue to speak their truth, to extend their hearts and their voices in these unprecedented times. Their voices may have been muted for a moment as our world was deeply shaken by gross injustice and anguish over division and fear of a wounded yesterday and an uncertain future. But their sense of duty to what is greater than their own pain or pride should be celebrated. Our artists have multiplied, mounting digital projects that have elevated not their own music but that of others. We’ve seen a 60% increase in attendance across all of our programs and over 900% growth in online viewership, which has been driven and reflected by the Sphinx family. Dozens of albums illuminating the legacy of black and brown songwriters, multiple articles in the national press, half a million dollars bringing to life new initiatives that advance inclusion in our industry, 20 digital performances and 66 millions around the world touched by their music, their work, their light.

“We named our program ‘Tracing Visions’ because before we are strong enough to write, we trace a vision of true unity, harmony and justice. These contemporary musicians and composers are the shining stars of today and tomorrow, but their light has been lit by so many who have gone before them, from Samuel Coleridge Taylor, a black composer who, in his short years of life, has given us more than many who have defined the classical canon for centuries in Florence Price, who was the first black female composer to have a work premiered by a large orchestra. This light has always been there, although we have not always been brave enough to see it.

Violinist Clayton Penrose Whitmore has been a member of Sphinx Virtuosi since 2015. He is an alumnus of the New England Conservatory of Music and spoke to us about the tour and his return to Boston.

How long have you been a member of Sphinx Virtuosi and what has been your experience with Sphinx over the years? (Feel free to detail your full musical background here! When you started playing, etc.)

I got involved with the Sphinx Organization in 2006 when I competed in the junior division of the competition. Sphinx has always felt like my second family and I have really enjoyed playing with the Sphinx Virtuosi since 2015. The Sphinx Organization has supported me throughout my career as a violinist and I have had the chance to meet lifelong friends and colleagues throughout my experiences with Sphinx. over the years.

In addition to the Sphinx Virtuosi, what does your career as a professional musician and producer involve?

My career outside of Sphinx Virtuosi mainly consists of working as a music producer for R&B and Hip Hop artists. I really enjoy working with new artists and having the opportunity to go back and forth between musical worlds.

You carried out the “Tracing Vision” program in the fall; are there any specific works you are most looking forward to? Are there any special parts of the program or pieces that you would particularly like the public to listen to?

Something I always look forward to in our “Tracing Visions” program is to perform two movements by Samuel Coleridge Taylor News for the strings. For this piece, I perform the Percussion part where I have to play the tambourine and the triangle, which was definitely a new experience for me.

What’s it like to go back on tour after the pandemic? Are there any differences that you noticed in terms of interpretation and also in terms of audience reactions?

It was so nice and rejuvenating to be able to perform again with this set after a long break during the pandemic. We really missed being able to spend time together and it was great to get back on the road. It really feels like there’s a collective sense of gratitude to be able to perform regularly in front of live audiences again.

You have completed your undergraduate at the NEC; how do you remember/describe the experience and what since your time at NEC is still part of your life/career today?

I was at NEC from 2011 to 2015 and enjoyed my time in Boston for those 4 years. It was inspiring to be surrounded by other students and friends who were performing at such a high level.

The Sphinx Virtuosi frequently give masterclasses and visit schools on tour; what does this add to the touring experience for the musicians?

We really enjoy interacting with students in the community during our visits. Playing music has had a positive impact on my life in many ways and I enjoy connecting with students and discussing how they can pursue their musical goals. I feel like a student yesterday. I enjoy trying to understand their situation and hope to be able to answer any questions they may have. I think we all appreciate being able to help in any way we can, whether it’s helping someone discover their passion for music or offering guidance to a student further along in their musical journey.

Are there any “must sees” in Boston/Massachusetts? Any places/restaurants you will make sure to visit while in town?

I look forward to reconnecting with old friends I still have in the Boston area and will definitely be going to Tasty Burger before I leave town!

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