Acclaimed Detroit orchestra showcases African-American and Latino musicians at MFA on Feb. 21

By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – The Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg has gathered an assemblage of vibrant paintings, sketches, costumes, and videos on display as part of the “Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney” exhibit. Even more exciting, they’ve added the “live” component, bringing in musicians, performers, singers and dancers from around the country to accompany the exhibit.

Curator Katherine Pill said the exhibition focuses on collaboration.

As well as a large number of exquisite paintings that were used in set and wardrobe design, the exhibit boast several impressive costumes, including one designed by Matisse, a stunning “Red Ecstasy Dress” by Lesley Dill, and a series by Robert Indiana for the 1947 opera “The Mother of Us All,”  which includes a costume called “Negro Man.” 

“In the 1947 opera “The Mother of Us All,” the roles of Negro Man (and Negro Woman) were the only ones with no identity or names. The costume of Negro Man is included in the exhibition as an important reminder of the racism that permeated the suffrage movement,” said Lashonda Curry, MFA’s manager of communications and public relations. “I hope this part of the exhibition, and other programming we have in the works at the MFA, informs and sparks conversation about how the path for the right to vote was much different for African-American women.”

Margaret Murray, associate curator of public programs, worked passionately to accrue an assortment of lively, expressive, and diverse artists for the exhibit. “We worked with a lot of different artists and cultural institutions, told them and showed them what was in the exhibition, and then allowed them to choose things that really spoke to them, that they could interpret however they wanted.”

One example of programming diversity is the Friday, Feb. 21 performance of Detroit-based Sphinx Virtuosi, who will share an evening of compositions, “For Justice & Peace” — which center around the topics of social justice and the environment, from 7 to 9 p.m.

The Sphinx Virtuosi is dedicated to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the world of classical music. It is made up of 18 “Black and Latinx classical soloists” who are alumni from the world-renowned Sphinx Competition. 

Members of the Sphinx Virtuosi have performed as soloists with the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras. Several members play with professional orchestras, some hold international education and advocacy roles, and also run their own professional music-based businesses.

Cellist and Composer Caleb Vaughn-Jones currently resides in South Africa and will be flying in to rejoin Sphinx Virtuosi for its performance on Feb. 21.

“I came to South Africa through Sphinx; they asked if I would be interested in working with an orchestra in South Africa, and the orchestra also had an educational outreach component,” shared Vaughn-Jones from his home in South Africa, where he has lived for the last nine years. 

He performed with the orchestra and went into townships to work with students and ended up staying, working in several similar education outreach programs. “It’s been wonderful; some of the kids are really dedicated,” he noted. He is also the executive producer and founder of Regulus Sound productions, providing “sounds from the African continent to various companies around the world.” 

Vaughn-Jones noted that Sphinx Virtuosi just finished a Fall tour, and will continue their Winter tour after the MFA performance; he shared that orchestra will be doing a combination of material, including a composition inspired by African-American historical figures, and a concerto incorporating singing and text from the Constitution.

Other artists in MFA performance series are soprano Ashley Thunder; dance artist Charlotte Johnson, performing with soprano Susan Hellman Spatafora; musical trio La Lucha, adding Latin-inspired rhythms, jazz standards, pop and original composition to silent sci-fi black and white film Aelita, Queen of Mars; and writer, performer, and cultural organizer Andrea Assaf, who is currently an Artist-in-Residence and guest faculty member at the USF Tampa, and member of RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers).

Here is a sampling of the upcoming schedule:

  • Sphinx Virtuosi at the MFA: For Justice & Peace ($20, which includes entrance to exhibition) The acclaimed Detroit-based orchestra performs pieces centered on social and environmental justice. Friday, Feb. 21 from 7-9 p.m.
  • Ashley Thunder: Opera in the Gallery (Free with museum admission) Thursday, March 5 from 6:30-7 p.m. & 7:30-8 p.m.; Thursday, April 2 from 6:30-7 p.m. & 7:30-8 p.m.; Thursday, May 7 from 6:30-7 p.m. & 7:30-8 p.m.
  • Opera + Dance with Soprano Susan Hellman Spatafora and Dance Artist Charlotte Johnson (Free with museum admission) Thursday, March 19 from 7-7:30 p.m.; Saturday, March 21 from 3-3:30 p.m.
  • La Lucha Performs Live Soundtrack to Film Screening of Aelita, Queen of Mars (reservations required) Friday, April 17, dusk – outside viewing in Straub Park & Sunday, April 19 from 3-5 p.m. 

For the full ART OF THE STAGE performance schedule, visit www.mfastpete.org

The Museum of Fine Art is located at 255 Beach Drive NE. Hours: Monday-Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 -5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 – 8 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.  

For more information, please call 727-896-2667 or visit mfastpete.org.

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com

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