Under Diversity Banner, Sphinx Virtuosi Concert To Celebrate Progress

Sphinx Virtuosi has returned to live performance with a tour that includes a gala at Carnegie Hall. (Photo: Kevin Kennedy)

PERSPECTIVE — Growing up in Petersburg, a small city in southeast Virginia, I was exposed to many fine musical experiences. Though there were no major concert halls or a plethora of what people would say were “mainstage” artists who came to town, the performances I heard from the stage of Petersburg High School were ones that would stay with me for a lifetime.

Conductor and clarinetist F. Nathaniel Gatlin

My hometown orchestra, the Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, was founded by Black conductor and clarinetist F. Nathaniel Gatlin. Professor Gatlin had a long career as chair of the music department at Virginia State University, a historically Black university, and was founder of the Intercollegiate Music Association. With Petersburg being in the area of the South commonly referred to as the “Crescent of the Civil War,” it is hard to imagine that a Black man had founded a symphony orchestra in such a racially complex city, let alone be the conductor. Yet, upon the death of Gatlin in 1989, another brilliant Black conductor (and cellist), Ulysses Kirksey, took up the helm and led the orchestra for 32 years until his untimely death in August.

I was not old enough to experience the artistry of Gatlin, but as a child it was through attending PSO concerts under the baton of Kirksey that I heard the great symphonic works played by a racially diverse orchestra. In what was certainly a full circle moment for me, I got some of my first professional opportunities with the orchestra as a student at Virginia State, including several performances of Handel’s Messiah as tenor soloist and the premiere of the opera The Edge of Glory by Emory Waters in which I sang the role of Henry Warren.

At a time when there are ongoing conversations about the lack of diversity in major American orchestras, I find myself wondering how an orchestra in a city of modest cultural resources such as Petersburg could achieve a sense of multiracial welcoming while large orchestras have seemed to shy away from the idea. Having now lived in the Washington, D.C., area for 15 years, and attended many concerts, I always ponder why I hardly see any Black musicians in the professional ensembles that play at the large halls. There are many talented Black string players in Washington, but unless a concert is a special program geared to a Black audience or centered around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the full breadth of artistry simply is not as far-reaching as it should be.

Afa Dworkin, Sphinx president and artistic director

I brought these thoughts to a recent interview with Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization, the Detroit-based nonprofit organization founded in 1997 that has been at the forefront of efforts to foster equity, diversity, and inclusion in classical music. Its core mission of providing free lessons and instruments to elementary school violinists in Detroit and Flint, Mich., continued in virtual formats during the pandemic. Sphinx addresses the scant representation of Black and Latinx musicians in American symphony orchestras through the National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS), in which it collaborates with the New World Symphony and the League of American Orchestras to prepare musicians of color for orchestra auditions.

The Sphinx Competition, open to young string players from underrepresented communities, is the organization’s flagship event (the 25th annual competition will be Jan. 26-29, 2022, in Detroit). In June, Sphinx was one of the 286 organizations awarded part of a $2.74 billion round of grants from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Sphinx has several professional ensembles, including the Sphinx Virtuosi chamber orchestra, which returned to live performance in September and October with a nine-city tour featuring works of Jessie Montgomery, Xavier Foley, Alberto Ginastera, and others. The Oct. 15 gala at Carnegie Hall includes Sphinx Medal of Excellence recipient bass-baritone Davóne Tines in the world premiere of an arrangement of the hymn “Angels in Heaven” by Carlos Simon, also a Medal of Excellence recipient.

Born in Moscow and trained as a violinist in Azerbaijan, Dworkin is a powerful testament to what can be achieved when you keep focus on your dreams and ambitions. Her abiding principle is that arts opportunities can be made for all who desire to have access to them. We began our conversation by discussing her own introduction to music as a child in the former Soviet Union.

CVNA:  What was the role of your parents as you began to express interest in music?

ASD: My dad was a chemical engineer, so he had a completely different mindset. In his leisure time, he did play the piano and the accordion, but he did not view music as a profession. He viewed it more as an important discipline to which every young person should be exposed. My mother was a romance languages linguist and a French professor at the university, so she had no exposure to music other than what was available in school.

In the Soviet Union, there were three television channels: one was news, another was Soviet news and propaganda, and the third was classical music. The classical channel was on all the time, so I heard the best masters and a lot of chamber music. I fell in love with a string orchestra called the Moscow Virtuosi, which inspired the Sphinx Virtuosi later. Their charismatic leader, Vladimir Spivakov, had me enthralled by how he handled the violin, so I kept asking my folks about studying the violin. Finally, when I turned seven my father said there was no harm if I wanted to audition.

In Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku, there was a free community music conservatory where you could pick your instrument. I still remember when my mom took me for the audition. My introduction to music was sunny, harmonious, and I fell in love with my teacher. In the third grade, my folks took me to audition for pre-conservatory and I got in. Something that I loved was the concept that classical music would never differentiate because of your zip code, race, ethnicity, or culture. I was one of the few multiracial kids there, but no one ever made me feel different or lesser. That was something that was poignantly missing when I first came to the States at 17 years old, pursuing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and was introduced to what was to become an early concept of Sphinx.

CVNA: It was at the University of Michigan where you met your future husband and fellow violinist, Aaron Dworkin, who founded Sphinx. How did the idea of diversity in classical music come up?

ASD: One day he was speaking about being the only multiracial person in an orchestra, and he asked me when was the last time that I had studied a concerto by a Black composer. My response was defensive, saying only that I was sure that Ellington and Joplin both wrote for orchestra. My lack of knowledge unsettled me and made me angry. I realized there was so much for me to learn. When I asked Aaron what he was going to do about the need for diversity in the classical music world, he said he was going to mount a festival that put the spotlight on string players of color. That festival was the initial pipeline that evolved into what we now know as the Sphinx Organization.

CVNA: In 2015, you succeeded Aaron as head of Sphinx. It can be daunting to take over an organization from its founder. Was that hard?

ASD: It is impossible to have replicated our founder’s role and impact. Fortunately, Aaron remains involved as a strategic adviser to our key initiatives. Ours is a life partnership (the Dworkins have two sons), which also helped empower my work and trajectory.

CVNA: What are some of the challenges that Sphinx has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic?

ASD: After the shock of watching our community lose all their performances, we began weekly family meetings on Zoom. This gave our musicians an opportunity to express their ideas and share their feelings. Then we began to think about how we could take the Sphinx Virtuosi and the Exigence vocal ensemble into the virtual space. Ultimately, Exigence and Virtuosi participated in more than 20 virtual residencies.

For SphinxConnect, our annual conference, we knew it was important to ask our community questions about meeting virtually. The responses were overwhelming in favor of convening online. When we asked parents of our students who participate in the summer in-person preparatory programs at Juilliard, the Cleveland Institute, and Curtis, if they would allow them to participate virtually, 98% said yes. I knew we could not afford to sit back and wait until the pandemic is over. We had to deliver.

So we put our heads together and built the content in partnership with our artists. Every panel had voices from the Sphinx community, as well as our alumni. In 2021, SphinxConnect had more than 20 sessions online, with 2,141 registrants. In 2022, we look forward to a hybrid event with a robust in-person component.

CVNA: How has the pandemic’s economic fallout affected NAAS, the initiative to prepare musicians of color for orchestra auditions? 

ASD: By pivoting to digital programming, Sphinx was able to double down on our NAAS efforts. We launched an orchestra excerpt competition in which Black and Latinx musicians play for a panel representing orchestras, receiving valuable input while competing for cash prizes; the first round is virtual, and round two in January will be live at Orchestra Hall in Detroit. We have seen applicant growth of 40%, and nearly 75 of our artists are receiving engagements with professional orchestras. A number of recent auditions have resulted in placements and one-year appointments with major orchestras. We look forward to capitalizing on this momentum.

CVNA: What kind of impact has Black Lives Matter had on the Sphinx mission to develop professional opportunities for musicians of color?

ASD: It has been a difficult and transformative time since the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I think the horror of those events in many ways put Sphinx in a position of having to own our role as an advocacy organization. We turned inward, and with the help of our artists and leaders we came up with a list of resources, ideas, and recommendations to the classical music industry as a call to action. I am always glad to do that work because I assume that folks want to make changes. This moment feels different, but we have a long way to go in aligning solidarity statements with actual work and follow-through.

I think that Sphinx’s place is not only to be a motivator and catalyst but also to make it clear that we can no longer blame lack of resources or knowledge for the problems of equity and equality in classical music. There are countless Black and Brown composers and performers in our field. Sphinx alone is fortunate to have 800 alumni of our programs. We have a national database of professional musicians of color that is public and free. There is no longer any excuse for orchestras and other ensembles to say that they are looking for these professionals and can’t find them.

CVNA: What sort of diversity do you think we will see in 10, 20, 30 years?

ASD: I want efforts like ours to become superfluous — because every stage, every podium, every music management office will be reflective of our diverse communities. It is a vision; let’s make it a reality.