Who is the face of classical music? Is it Bach? Or Beethoven? Mozart? Most of us, if asked to identify famous names in this genre, would certainly come up with white composers. The fifth annual Sphinx Competition, taking place in Ann Arbor tomorrow, suggests that we adopt a new face.
Perhaps this face is of an African American or a Latino string player. Though their numbers are climbing, minority musicians are still a rarity in American orchestras. Currently, African Americans and Latinos combined comprise less than four percent of these ensembles. Lack of supportive role models, music program budget cuts in inner-city schools and the elitist stereotype of classical string players all contribute to this staggeringly low figure.
It”s been an uphill climb for Sphinx founder and President Aaron Dworkin, but he is only encouraged by the prospect of a stronger minority presence in classical music. Dworkin”s own experiences as an African American violinist propelled him toward starting Sphinx. He finds a lack of African Americans and Latinos not only on stage, but also in the audience. “There is enormous underrepresentation of these minorities in the entire classical music community,” said Dworkin. “That”s where Sphinx came out of.”
The competition”s name originates from the mysterious Sphinx that overlooks the Egyptian desert. To the Sphinx organization, this monument represents the historical and geographical roots for many minorities, as well as the power and prestige of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The Egyptians revered these large Sphinx “cats” as sources of wisdom, awareness and patience, all qualities that the Sphinx organization”s founders hope their participants possess.
Consisting of Junior and Senior Divisions, the Sphinx Competition welcomes all junior high, high school and college-age Black and Latino string players to partake. The Junior division finals concert, in which the top three musicians under 18 will be competing, takes place at Hill Auditorium tomorrow. This concert is geared toward area youths, who will comprise most of the audience. The nationally-broadcast Senior Division concert will take place at Orchestra Hall in Detroit. There, both the Junior Division winner and the three Senior Division finalists will perform with the Sphinx Symphony, which is comprised solely of African American and Latino musicians.
The concert at Orchestra Hall is particularly noteworthy for the premiere of the “Symphony of the Sphinx,” commissioned by acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni and composer Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson. Various choral ensembles and saxophonist Branford Marsalis will also be featured in this performance.
While the musicians are competing for more than $100,000 in prizes and scholarships, the competition is just one component of the Sphinx organization”s goals. Semi-finalists and finalists also have access to an instrument fund, which the students can use for up to a year after their participation in Sphinx. Through the musical encounters program, the Sphinx finalists go into Metro-Detroit elementary schools to encourage youths to take up string instruments. In addition, the participants gain valuable experience by performing with world-renowned orchestras, such as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
But most importantly, Sphinx allows minority musicians to meet one another and share their experiences. This aspect attracted last year”s Junior Division winner and Interlochen Academy student, Melissa White, to participate in the Sphinx Competition. “It”s a support system for each other,” said White. “It”s also great exposure It breaks the misconception that there aren”t minorities in classical music.”
White recently performed at Borders Books & Music in downtown Ann Arbor as part of Sphinx”s “Classical Connections” program. Sponsored by SBC Ameritech, this program sends Sphinx participants into the community, by giving free concerts in libraries, churches, museums and other venues. If White”s well-received recital at Borders was any indication of how successful Sphinx has become, we can expect a lot more in the future. Those in attendance seemed not only interested in hearing Paginini, Bach and Kreisler, but also speaking with White and learning of her experiences. Dworkin, his wife and several Sphinx participants were also on hand, eager to answer audience questions.
One got the impression of Sphinx as not only a competition, but also an extended family. For White, this family has allowed her to give numerous recitals, perform with famous orchestras and take lessons with legendary violinist Isaac Stern. “I love the friendships you make. Every time I return it”s like a family reunion,” said White. “Even if you don”t win, it”s still good to be in good company.”
As the public embraces and encourages minority participation in classical music, we should expect Sphinx and other programs like it to become even more popular. And in turn, the diversity of American orchestras will hopefully increase, as is one of the goals of Sphinx and founder Dworkin. “It”s a definitive start, but it”s something that can”t happen in a year or five years,” said Dworkin. “We”ve got a long way to go.”
The Junior Division Finals can be seen tomorrow afternoon at Hill free. The Junior Division Finals are Sunday at 3 p.m. Orchestra Hall Detroit tickets are $10.