sun 16/06/2024

Sphinx Organization, Wigmore Hall review - black performers and composers take centre stage | reviews, news & interviews

Sphinx Organization, Wigmore Hall review - black performers and composers take centre stage

Sphinx Organization, Wigmore Hall review - black performers and composers take centre stage

A welcome spotlight on diversified repertoire, played with sincerity and humour

The Sphinx Organization at the Wigmore Hall© The Wigmore Hall Trust, 2024

Kudos to the Wigmore Hall for continuing to make efforts to diversify its roster of performers and repertoire. Last year I reviewed the Kaleidoscope Collective, and noted how the different profile of their players attracted a younger and less universally white audience to the hall, and the same happened again last night when the American Sphinx Organization were given the stage.

Make no mistake, the Wigmore Hall remains a bastion of Beethoven and a haven for Haydn, but an effort is being made and that should be noted and applauded.

Sphinx is a Michigan-based, multi-faceted “social justice organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts” which embraces education, artist development and arts leadership. Yesterday’s concert was evidence of the success of their performing artists programme, focused on promoting the careers of black musicians playing the music of black composers.

Jessie Montgomery’s string quartet Strum was a fine opener. Starting with violist Michael Casimir playing guitar-style, it opened out into a complex texture of competing lines, with pizzicato a constant feature, now and then interrupted by warm chordal passages. The players, like the music, were busy, business-like and unsentimental.

Likewise with Tania Léon’s solo piano Tumbao, a tribute to the composer’s Cuban-American heritage. Played with extrovert abandon by Michelle Cann, I’d have liked it to have been longer, the virtuosic cross-rhythms and percussive cluster chords making for a very engaging experience. In fact, Cann’s enthusiastic, slightly breathless spoken introduction may have been longer than the actual piece, which is not really the right balance.Michelle Cann and Sterling Elliott of the Sphinx OrganizationSentimentality was to the fore in William Grant Still’s cello and piano piece Mother and Child. If the Léon was too short that wasn’t a problem here. It was played nicely by Sterling Elliott (pictured above with Michelle Cann), whose generous tone and refusal to indulge in bathos I appreciated. But, to paraphrase Stravinsky, the piece was over well before it finished.

Florence Price’s Piano Quintet in E minor, one of her pieces rediscovered only in the 21st century as a manuscript in her abandoned summer home, felt short-winded, perhaps because it is suspected there was another movement which remains lost. The first couple of minutes are the most interesting harmonically, after which it settles into Price’s familiar post-Romantic soundworld. The languorous dreaminess of the second movement was the best bit, violinist Alex Gonzalez finding a sweet sound amid the musical haze.

After the interval, a delightful arrangement of Take the “A” Train, Elliott on a lively walking bass, each player having a solo, jazz style. There was more than a hint of Stéphane Grappelli in Melissa White’s, and I found the whole thing charming.

But the most extraordinary piece of the night was Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Movement for String Trio, written in 2004, the year he died. Before Saturday I had never heard of Perkinson, when a new album of his music was reviewed in theartsdesk’s CD column. Then on Sunday I heard this humble but wonderful piece, a kind of wonky Bach, the pizzicato bass of the “Air on the G string” distorted into something new and fascinating. Small but perfectly formed (and beautifully played) it is well worth seeking out online.

After which there was just the Piano Quintet by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Perkinson’s namesake. On the one hand this is an extraordinary achievement for an 18-year-old composer in 1893, a convincing, substantial piece of post-Brahms chamber music. But I am a bit of a Coleridge-Taylor sceptic, finding his late-19th century musical language a bit overwrought – especially in comparison to Perkinson’s restraint. Here the ensemble were not put off by a broken viola string – Michelle Cann filled the gap with a ragged-up version of Rachmaninov’s famous C-sharp-minor Prelude – and their evident joy in playing in the Wigmore Hall helped them to carry off what, for me, is a bit of clunky Victoriana.


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