By Greg Cahill | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine
“Diversity invites us as human beings to envision that which is most important to us in its fullest, most vibrant, and most informed form. If we care for the arts to thrive, they must be relevant to the people that they serve or aspire to serve,” says violinist Afa S. Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based nonprofit that promotes social justice and ethnic diversity in the arts. “In order to be relevant, the arts—or classical music, in our case—must be representative of all of the voices of our communities. Those historically excluded must be amplified, affirmed, celebrated, and empowered.”
For 25 years, the Sphinx Organization has advanced the careers of young Black and Latinx classical string players through programs that include a prestigious national competition created in 1997 by violinist and founder Aaron P. Dworkin. The annual competition provides almost $100,000 in prizes, as well as access to top orchestras and the use of fine instruments. The 2022 Sphinx Competition Laureates include senior division winners Kebra-Seyoun Charles (first place), violinist Gabriela Lara (second place), and violist Harper Randolph (third place); junior division finalists were violinist Jonathan Okseniuk (first place), cellist Brandon Leonard (second place), and violinist Ana Isabella España (third place). Jurists this year included violinists Midori, Danielle Belen, and Melissa White (of the Harlem Quartet, the visiting quartet-in-residence at the Royal College of Music in London); cellists Zuill Bailey and Patrice Jackson; and double bassist Laura Snyder. Sphinx competition alumni include violinists Randall Goosby and Jannina Norpoth; cellist Gabriel Cabezas; and violist Lianna Dugan.
In addition to the competition, Sphinx also offers year-round tuition-free educational programs and creative youth development; sponsors performances and tours of five ensembles (the Sphinx Virtuosi, the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, the Harlem and Catalyst quartets, and Exigence, a professional vocal ensemble) and a robust roster of soloists; funds the commissioning and performance of new works by contemporary Black and Latinx composers; fosters administrative leadership, cultural innovation, and entrepreneurship programs; partners with more than 250 organizations, including world-class orchestras; and hosts summer camps and intensives for beginning, intermediate, and advanced string players.
“I like to think that Sphinx has stayed true to its founding mission of transforming lives through the power of diversity,” Dworkin says. “In the past seven years, I have had the privilege to bring some of our work to scale by doubling down on collaborations, both organizational and artistic. We have intentionally asked our 250-plus partners and nearly 850 artist alumni to work with us to achieve the mission. We are stronger together and systemic change becomes possible when we are in physical and virtual rooms with those whose priorities and strengths may differ from those of our own. In recent years, countless partner organizations and artists have brought their perspectives and strengths to amplify ours. Our goal remains to serve our artists, our field, and our greater community. On this path, we have significantly increased our program reach, which includes a cumulative 60 percent growth in the applicant pool across programs, and our program and digital reach by more than 800 percent.
“Making our work accessible while focusing on fieldwide impact and giving greater voices to not only our artists but also our administrative leaders has been an intentional focus of ours. I am fortunate to work with a brilliant team who share the vision of centering the voices of Black and Latinx artists and LEADers—members of the Sphinx Leaders in Excellence, Arts, and Diversity family—and reimagining our programming in ways that advance their careers and bring the field and our greater community closer together.
“Today, as a team, we reflect on impact: what has been the result of our work thus far, and how can we deepen this moving forward?”
The Challenge of Ethnic Diversity
Classical music organizations like Sphinx have spent millions of dollars and considerable time and effort in recent years to increase diversity within the music industry. According to a report by San Francisco Classical Voice, throughout the 2015–16, 2016–17, and 2017–18 seasons, on average only two percent of works presented on classical stages were by women and three percent by composers of color. The numbers jumped a bit in 2019–20, with six percent of works by women and eight percent by composers of color. During the 2020–22 season, “this slow-moving climb suddenly turned into a sprint,” SFCV noted. “Works scheduled for performance by women comprised 12 percent and nearly 17 percent are by composers of color.”
Those gains, however, are among composers, not players. Indeed, America’s orchestras aren’t as diverse as the cities they serve, a 2018 industry-wide study found. “There are real barriers for African-American and Latinx musicians entering our profession,” cellist Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, told NBC News.
In 2020, a network of classical organizations founded by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) teamed with Sphinx in an attempt to change that. The National Instrumentalist Mentoring and Advancement Network (NIMAN), a coalition of professional classical music organizations, “hopes to provide a leg up to talented musicians of color as they strive to win a job in a symphony orchestra or as a successful freelance musician,” the Cincinnati Business Courier reported. The official debut announcement for NIMAN took place at a 2020 convention of the Sphinx Organization in Detroit. “The field of classical music in America has not adequately addressed diversity, equity, and inclusion,” CSO president Jonathan Martin told the business journal. “After decades of diversity programs and tens of millions of dollars spent, only 1.8 percent of the nation’s orchestra musicians are Black and 2.5 percent are Hispanic. By contrast, the nation is growing increasingly diverse. Greater diversity onstage will show that people of color have tremendous value to contribute to classical music in America, our orchestras will be stronger and more sustainable, and our communities will be better served.”
Not everyone is an advocate for such change. The push for diversity in the classical music industry, and arts in general, has been met with a backlash in an increasingly polarized society in which racial equity often is a flashpoint. In June, the Fox Business channel aired The War on the West, a Sunday night cultural roundtable in which four conservative panelists argued that predominantly white institutions, including American orchestras, are under attack by progressives. “There is a hatred of civilization for being too white and too male,” moderator Heather Mac Donald, a Fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said. “The desire to destroy [it] is profound. There is an inebriation, a Dionysian frenzy that comes with being able to destroy statues, being able to destroy the past literature. If you can’t build something up, you sure as hell can tear it down.”
A Life-Changing Experience
For double bassist Joseph Conyers, a semi-finalist in the first Sphinx Competition held in 1998 and second place winner in 2004, the organization had a profound impact on his young life. “Personally, at a young age, to know of, and to be part of, a space where there were young people of color with an interest in music as deep as mine was transformative,” says Conyers, who has amassed an impressive resume (acting associate principal bass of the Philadelphia Orchestra; founder and vision advisor at Project 440; double bass faculty at the Juilliard School and Temple University; music director of the Philadelphia All-City Orchestra; director of the Young Artists Orchestra at Boston University Tanglewood Institute; and board member of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance).
“In my hometown of Savannah, [Georgia], while there was a great community of folks who helped me, and there were even organizations that were designed for young students of color, they did not have the same energy. And then there was the competition. This was a competition that was held for students from all around the country, so to have that level of proficiency met with the level of dedication met with the familial aspect of Sphinx was hugely important. And also the familiarity of being around folks who knew my culture and where we could talk about things that I just couldn’t talk about with my other friends, because they did not relate to those experiences, that by itself was almost as therapeutic in its way to give me a very strong sense of belonging in the classical music sphere. I knew they were friends and associates who would support me and understand me and who could see me.”
In 2019, Conyers, the past recipient of various Sphinx grants, was awarded the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, which carried a $50,000 stipend. “Those have allowed me to more aggressively go after some of my pursuits and my own efforts in reaching out into the community with the work that I do in Philadelphia,” he says of the grants and prizes, “and work that I used to do in Savannah, specifically through my own nonprofit organization, Project 440, which is based here in Philadelphia and works with students in the school district of Philadelphia. We also have programs nationally. So the financial assistance was one way Sphinx helped my own professional development. Additionally, Aaron and Afa have always made themselves available for feedback and conversation in the same way that I’ve made myself available to a lot of young people now coming up behind me.”
One recipient of Conyers’ largess is 2022 Sphinx Competition finalist Kebra-Seyoun Charles, a double bassist who is pursuing a master’s degree at Juilliard and studying with Conyers. “In case you didn’t know, Joe is probably the best body builder I know that plays bass—if not the only one besides myself—and I think this comparison will aptly describe our relationship,” Charles says. “Joe is like my personal trainer for bass. He knows when to push me and he instinctively knows where I am lacking, not because I so obviously express my faults that they’re glaring, but because he himself has been down the exact same road and knows exactly where and how to improve my skill set in classical music. He really knows how to push me, and he also has the undeniable experience of playing in the music industry alongside really storied and talented musicians that I have not had the opportunity to do yet. So studying with Joe, I’m growing my musical muscles, or rather, I’m working at being as musically ripped as he is.
“And he came from a gospel tradition, something that is integral to my own musicianship. I learn a lot from his approach and his playing, and I’ve learned from studying with him that I need to have a reason for everything I do in music. I can’t do something ‘just because’—it needs to be informed by either a musical context, a historical context, or a theoretical context.”
Charles plans to use his status as a Sphinx Competition winner, as well as the $50,000 cash award, to broaden the perspective of classical music audiences. “It is my main dream and goal in life to be one of many representatives in classical music for my generation, and I think winning the top prize has validated my vision,” he says. “To be frank, I don’t fit into conventions of classical music, of bass playing, of even gender expression. I am non-binary—I am one of the few openly non-binary musicians in classical music, and I see my job as a multi-pronged thing. First, I want to make classical music cool again. I want to encourage individuality in classical music, and I want to show the audience that there are real people onstage just like them. Secondly, I want to promote gender diversity in classical music, and I want people to know that they can be themselves whenever they play music. I have lots of piercings, and I emote heavily, so to speak, when I play bass, and that can be a little off-putting, but when I won the top prize, it was a validation of all of my ideals. It helped cement my goals for becoming a representative of my generation of classical musicians, somewhat akin to Edgar Myer or Bach.” He pauses a minute. “Yeah, sure, I’ll say Bach! Or Mozart or Yo-Yo or Emanuel Ax, and I wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of Sphinx as well as my generation of people at large.”
Looking Toward the Future
Charles’ inclusionary dream matches that of Dworkin, Sphinx’s energetic president, who envisions unlimited opportunity to build community in a diversified classical music industry. “I see our field evolving beyond rhetoric and performative statements,” she says. “I see us as more honestly reflective of our communities—diverse and strong, both artistically and philosophically. I see our music schools and conservatories working harder and smarter to reflect the cities in which they reside and the communities they hope to represent. I see opera companies and orchestras making more global changes onstage and off, making mistakes, taking risks, and landing somewhere authentically better. I see our canon evolving to include the amazing voices of Black and Latinx composers throughout the season. I see our [Sphinx] artists leading the way, our LEAD alumni occupying corner offices and making sound decisions that change the status quo. Sphinx fits into this vision as a leader, a tone-setter, and a resource to its artists first and then to the industry. It is a vision worth attaining: it will take courage and commitment to make decisions for the good of a more honorable role for the arts in our society.
“When we reflect on the past 25 years, rather than feeling the need to congratulate ourselves on incremental changes and the number of consensus meetings we’ve held, I want us as a field to celebrate the dramatic changes that speak for themselves. Sphinx is committed to nurturing the talents of our artists and leaders and connecting the field with the colossally promising family of its alumni. They do and can change the face and heart of classical music.”