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Sphinx and the art of diversifying classical music

For 25 years, the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization has had a mission of “transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.”

Sphinx’s touring orchestra, Sphinx Virtuosi, will be performing at the Ordway on Sunday with the Minnesota-based Border CrosSing.
Sphinx’s touring orchestra, Sphinx Virtuosi, will be performing at the Ordway on Sunday with the Minnesota-based Border CrosSing.
Photo by Kevin Kennedy

The old way of thinking about classical music may be changing. Once an art form that celebrated the musical genius of mostly white men, performed by orchestras that had a dearth of melanated musicians for a primarily white audience, things are slowly starting to shift.

The Institute for Composer Diversity found, according to the San Francisco Classical Voice article from August, that on average, orchestra seasons from 2015-16 to 2017-18 performed work by composers of color 3 percent of the time. The 2019-2020 season was slightly better, with 8 percent of works by composers of color. In the 2021-2022 season, scheduled performances included 17 percent of works by composers of color. 

The protests that erupted across the country in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd might offer some explanation for the uptick — as institutions took deliberate steps to address disparities within their own organizations. But you can also look at the legwork put in by organizations who have been working to change things for decades. Case in point: the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization. 

For 25 years, Sphinx has had a mission of “transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.”

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“The idea was always to diversify classical music, but ultimately bring the power of classical music to communities across the country, and to ultimately make classical music reflect the rich diversity inherent in our communities everywhere,” said Sphinx’s president and artistic Director, Afa Dworkin. 

The organization started with the Sphinx competition, which is still going. It identifies and empowers talent that exists in Black and Brown communities. “It provides these young people with opportunities that may have been historically not possible for them,” Dworkin said. 

Expanding from the competition, Sphinx began putting instruments in the hands of young people, exposing them to classical music from an early age. The organization also built programs around professional development, opportunities and arts leadership for musicians of color. Now Sphinx has 840 alumni, and reaches 10,000 young people each year, Dworkin said. 

Sphinx partners with 108 orchestras across the country to build resources necessary for emerging musicians of color to prepare for auditions. “Blacks and Latinos only comprise slightly more than 4 percent in American orchestras,” Dworkin said.  

Sphinx also works to minimize barriers for young musicians by offering coaching and mentorship opportunities, as well as holding mock auditions. About 30 of the orchestras Sphinx works with provide solo performance opportunities for the winners of the Sphinx Competition.

Sphinx’s touring orchestra, Sphinx Virtuosi, will be performing at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington St., St. Paul, on Sunday with the Minnesota-based Border CrosSing, presented by Arts Partnership. Among the musicians are several who have connections here in the Twin Cities including principal violist Celia Hatton, who has previously performed with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) as a guest musician; violinist Alex Gonzalez who performed with SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra and Patricia Quintero Garcia who has been a guest artist with SPCO. 

Meanwhile, Emilia Mettenbrink lives in St. Paul and plays with the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. 

Originally from Minneapolis, Mettenbrink attended music school at the University of Michigan, studying with Paul Kantor, and then did graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. Then she went to the New World Symphony in Miami for four years. Eventually, she decided to move back home, and has gotten work as a sub and guest artist with orchestras here in the Twin Cities. 

Mettenbrink learned about the Sphinx program through its founder, Aaron Dworkin, who she knew from her time at the University of Michigan.

“That organization has felt like home to me for a very long time,” Mettenbrink said. “It’s like a big happy family that we’ve cultivated over the years.” 

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Besides concerts for general audiences, Sphinx Virtuosi also does programs for school aged children. 

“It’s exciting for us to do because it is those moments when someone will walk up to you after you’ve played and be like, ‘Oh, I’ve never experienced this before. And now I want to try this,’” Mettenbrink said, adding that visiting a classroom often makes young people feel more comfortable approaching the musicians after the concert. “It’s been interesting to see the way it breaks down the barriers.”

Emilia Mettenbrink
Courtesy of the artist
Emilia Mettenbrink: “The [Sphinx Organization] has felt like home to me for a very long time.”
For Mettenbrink, while the professionalism and dedication to the music is similar with Sphinx as it is with other orchestras, she feels a connection with her fellow musicians that is filled with deep understanding. “We call ourselves “la familia,” these are my people,” she said. 

Sunday’s performance includes work by the Black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and a piece by African American composer Florence Price, who in the past few years has become more celebrated. There will also be works by Jessie Montgomery, an alumnus of Sphinx, as well as a piece by virtuoso double bass player and composer Xavier Foley along with a solo cello piece by Spanish composer Andrea Casarrubios. A number of Latin American composers will be featured in the program as well, including two pieces by Brazilian composer Ricardo Herz, Argentinian composer Carlos Guastavino, Alberto Evaristo Ginastera and Cuban composer Leo Brouwer. 

“The idea is to uplift, to educate, to inspire audiences across the country, to learn this music, get to hear for the first time, but also spread the good word that here’s really excellent music that can enrich and help evolve the canon that we know to be classical music,” Dworkin said. “Excellence has been part of the vision within the artistic communities in Black and brown communities across the world.” 

Sphinx and Border CrosSing perform at 3 p.m. Sunday at Ordway Concert Hall ($0-31). More information here.