Bach and Lizzo: For these Colorado string musicians, no music is off limits

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4min 35sec
Sphere Ensemble at Blanc
Courtesy Sphere Ensemble/Danielle Lirette
Members of the Sphere Ensemble perform both classical music as well as arrangements of modern music.

When you think of strings — violin, cello, the viola — you probably have a very specific idea of what kind of music you’re about to hear. But a group of Colorado string musicians called Sphere Ensemble is changing minds about their sound, and redefining the genre. 

Sphere Ensemble is a 13-player string orchestra, but the group is much more than the description captures. While they play a huge variety of classical orchestral masterpieces, they also play remarkable works from all genres, including pop music. 

“You might hear anything, as old as music of J.S. Bach, and anything as present as Lizzo — and everything in between,” said the group’s executive director, Alex Vittal, who also plays the viola in the ensemble.

Vittal has played with Sphere since the group's second-ever concert, back in 2011. 

“We write arrangements of different kinds of music, specifically tailored for our group. And so in many ways, with the 13 players, we are kind of more in line with like a string quartet in that we're all playing our own parts, rather than a more traditional string orchestra where there are sections,” Vittal said. 

The music selection isn’t the group's only unique attribute. Sphere Ensemble operates as a cooperative, with each member sharing artistic responsibilities. Vittal says the ensemble’s music-making process and rehearsals are very democratic. 

“We all, are encouraged to, you know, offer up musical ideas, suggestions.”

Violinist Sarah Whitnah joined Sphere Ensemble in 2015.

“I like to describe Sphere Ensemble as a band. Like, we are not a traditional string orchestra, and we don't really function that way,”  Whitnah said. “We are a group, honestly, of soloists that come together, and we each have the thing we're good at and then we celebrate that about each other.”

Conductor Alejandro Gómez Guillén —  also credited as “Voice, Violin, and Cowbell," — says even though his role calls on him to lead rehearsals, it is still very much a collaborative process.

“The essence of the group is that we are a collective of high-level colleagues and friends who love to make music together,” Gómez Guillén said.  “When I step onto the so-called podium, even though I don't use an actual podium, the idea is that as a conductor, I am another member of the chamber ensemble.” 

Gómez Guillén says the group has found this way of making music and collaborating is extremely joyful.  

“It makes us that much more aware of what we want to achieve together. And it's just a joy to get to do it with friends and colleagues,” Gómez Guillén said. 

The group has two concerts this weekend, one at the Mercury Cafe in Denver and the other at the Broomfield Auditorium. The program includes Styx’s, “Come Sail Away”, from Sphere Ensemble’s debut album called Divergence, as well as a movement from the Sonatine by Maurice Ravel

Vittal says the program also includes music that is near and dear to him.

“I wrote a huge version of the B-side of “Abbey Road,” the big medley of The Beatles,” Vitall said. 

The group’s latest concert, titled “Vintage,” takes Sphere Ensemble back to its self-conducted roots with works spanning its 12-year history.