Classical music has long been associated with a predominantly white, older, upper-class culture. String instruments, in particular, are likely to bring an air of unfamiliarity and awkwardness to young African-American and Latino talent. The 4th Annual Texaco-Sphinx competition challenges this foundation, and offers a wealth of opportunities for African-American and Latino string players, both in performance and in their lives.
For this year”s events, the Texaco Foundation joined the Sphinx Competition as the program”s presenter, pledging a three-year, $300,000 grant. The name “Sphinx,” has a multi-faceted meaning, as it pertains not only to the image of the large cats that the ancient Egyptians revered, but also to the mysterious construction of music. The Egyptian Sphinx was known to represent wisdom, patience, and awareness, all qualities that the competition”s participants possess.
Sphinx is designed for junior and senior high school students, up through college-level African-American and Latino students. Over 10,000 educators, performers and administrators are sent competition information, and each participant submits an audition tape with a piece by a minority composer. Though the number of competitors varies from year to year, 18 semi-finalists are selected to participate in the semi-finals and finals round. The junior age division consists of musicians under 18, and the senior division includes those from 18 to 26. Each semi-finalist also has access to the Sphinx instrument fund, which provides high-quality modern instruments that they can use for a year after the competition ends.
Friday”s concert at Hill Auditorium will feature the three finalists in the junior division, as well as the Sphinx Symphony, the all African-American and Latino orchestra comprised of professional musicians throughout the United States. Conductor Anthony Elliott, a well-regarded African-American cellist and composer, will lead the orchestra. Their performance includes the Overture “Of New Horizons,” by Ulysses Kay, who is also an African-American composer. The first place junior winner will receive $5,000 in prize money, as well as full scholarships to prestigious music camps and academies across the country, including Aspen, Encore, Musicorda and Interlochen.
What”s perhaps even a greater reward, however, is the opportunity for these young winners to broadcast a message of hope to other musicians like them. The junior division winner, for instance, will travel to Borders bookstores around the country to show that there is already a large minority involvement in classical music, and to encourage others to participate. One of the goals of Sphinx founder and Executive Director Aaron Dworkin is just this. Dworkin said that the first step to achieving this goal is to “break down these perceptions that it is inaccessible, that it really doesn”t pertain to minority experience.”
Sphinx reaches into individual communities by showcasing the finalists with orchestras across the U.S., including the Boston, New World and Detroit Symphony Orchestras. Additionally, the “musical encounters” program allows the winner to go into urban, inner-city schools, and perform a classical piece, often spiritual, that the kids can relate to. Target stores across the country also provide support as public sponsors.
For Dworkin, the Sphinx Competition is a labor of love, a day-to-day effort that is a constant source of inspiration. “Literally every day is a joy for me, because I get to work with what I love to do,” Dworkin said. “I love to be around their energy, their excitement about what they”re doing, and ultimately hearing them play.”
Still only in its fourth year, Dworkin also hopes that Sphinx will evolve and grow beyond what it has already achieved. “We certainly have a lot of work to do,” Dworkin said. “To really have a lasting impact, our mission will take some time.”
The competition will culminate in senior division finals concert, which will take place at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, on February 25th at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are available at (313) 576-5111.