Aaron Dworkin and Sphinx: Taking the mystery out of orchestral inclusion

by Victoria Aschheim

Aaron Dworkin, founder and president of the SPHINX Organization, will receive the Luise Vosgerchian Award from Harvard and deliver a Learning from Performers lecture at 3pm on Friday, March 11, in the Thompson Room of the Barker Center. Dworkin exchanged emails with Harvard Arts Beat blogger Victoria Aschheim about the pioneering vision of his work with young black and Latino musicians and scholars.

One of your former professors at the University of Michigan has said "you have changed the world" through your path-breaking work as an arts educator and innovator. The MacArthur Fellowship citation pointed out that through your Sphinx programs and nurturing support, you have assured access and enriched symphonies across the country. Would you reflect on the progress that has been made in the classical music world to include minorities musicians in orchestras? Are you satisfied with the level of numbers of minority musicians in orchestras?

Sphinx has identified issues of diversity and access to music education as two key priorities in its mission. We have been fortunate to be able to form meaningful alliance with orchestras, music festivals, summer programs, umbrella organizations and music schools across the country, in working toward bridging the dramatic gap and a stark need in this area. Nationally, only sightly more than 4 percent of all orchestras are comprised of blacks and Latinos. Numbers are similar in the world of academia and lower in the realm of solo and chamber music performance. Furthermore, numbers are especially low in our audiences, those who propel the livelihood and longevity of live performances. Sphinx envisions a reality where our industry reflects the rich diversity inherent in our society today. While the numbers of blacks in top tier orchestras have doubled in the last decade and young artists of color are able to appear as soloists with 20 orchestras in the country annually, the harsh reality is that we have just begun to travel the path of change and transformation. Any fundamental change requires time to reflect, to get everyone to truly understand, internalize and commit to a common goal. It is our hope that, through our efforts, and that of over 30 orchestral partners and 20 music schools and summer partners, we can establish diversity as one of key priorities, and embrace solutions institutionally and globally.

In the Boston region, Project STEP has pursued the vision of enlarging the membership of African American and Latino musicians in American orchestral settings through rigorous preparatory training. Indeed, Tony Rymer, a Project STEP graduate, and New England Conservatory student was the first place winner in the 12th Annual Sphinx Competition at the Max Fisher Music Center in Detroit, with the Sphinx organization propelling his soloist career. Can you comment on Tony Rymer's connection with your programs?

Tony is a talented young artist and a wonderful cellist. It has been an enormous source of pleasure and pride to have had the opportunity to watch and experience his growth as an artist and an individual over the years. He entered the Sphinx family years ago, as a Junior Division participant. With his skill and talent evident, Tony was able to maximize some key opportunities for professional development, always open to mentorship and critical feedback offered by our jurors and mentor musicians. When he returned to take top honors, his performance carried integrity, elegance and maturity and showed an even greater potential. He has been a regular participant in our annual Sphinx Virtuosi tour, an active ambassador to the community and a role model for his younger peers. It has been an honor to hear him as a soloist with some key orchestras across the country, and under the guidance of such masters as his cello professor Paul Katz, I have no doubt that Tony has a wonderful path ahead of him.

Your work in creating the Sphinx has been extended to working with and mentoring young minority musicians abroad, with Sphinx envisioning "a world in which classical music reflects cultural diversity and plays a role in the everyday lives of youth." Tell us about the work of Sphinx in South Africa, and your forthcoming work in Belgium.

Historically, Sphinx has had incredible opportunities to showcase our artists abroad. Our key alumni, including Tony Rymer, held leadership positions in the world youth orchestra under the direction of Marin Alsop last summer, participating in the Bernstein Mass Project (under the auspices of Southbank Centre). Some of our key laureates have had the opportunity to solo with the London Philharmonic and others. The US Embassy in Belgium made it possible for Marie-Elise McNeely, one of our alumni specializing in period music, to travel to Brussels this spring, to hold a residency, collaborating with local musicians of color, performing for and interacting with underserved young people, and promoting the understanding and awareness of American culture in Belgium. Cellist Caleb Jones will hold an eight-month residency in South Africa, working with beginner students, performing with the orchestra and sharing teaching principals and techniques with local teachers. Another laureate, violinist Gareth Johnson, will perform as a soloist with Kwazulu-Natal Orchestra, and lead educational sessions with young people in the area. Catalyst Quartet will also perform and conduct a residency at the University of South Africa later this season, interacting with student composers, instrumentalists and other constituents.

A performance at Winfield House, the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, in 2009 marked the beginning of Sphinx's international programming. It occurred to me that opening musical opportunities to even a wider diverse community -- for instance including the Islamic community of Great Britain -- would plant the seeds of harmony in a community which perhaps feels excluded from mainstream Britain and has even been mentioned in the press as having an element of "home-grown terrorism." Music education could be a great healing element in the Islamic community.

Sphinx's early efforts in uniting communities, bridging the barriers and promoting mutual understanding dates farther back than 2009: We began our efforts in 2007, through our partnership with Southbank Centre, and our two original fellows, Kaila Potts and Mariana Green-Hill, performing recitals, collaborating with the London Philharmonic musicians and visiting underserved communities in London. Our efforts in Belgium and other countries are beginning to explore and define a larger context and a broader meaning found in being relevant to the specific target communities of a particular country. Marie-Elise will collaborate with a guitar virtuoso representing the Islamic community prominent in Brussels, and many of the young people in the partner schools display the rich mosaic of cultural diversity inherent in our world today. Our goal with international efforts is to create channels of exchange and understanding and to allow music to serve as universal language accessible to people of all backgrounds.

What are your hopes for the future of Sphinx?

While we strive to stay in tune with our industry, its needs and demands, we hope to expand our reach further, defining geographical sphere as well as programmatic depth. We hope to nurture the Catalyst Quartet and Sphinx Virtuosi, working to put our premiere ensembles on the global map. We hope to provide the practical/educational tools and empower our artists to define standards of excellence. We hope to continue to promote, discover and commission meaningful works by composers of color, increasing awareness and knowledge within our industry as a whole. Ultimately, we hope to be a part of the effort working to erase the barriers toward music exposure and education in any young person's life, regardless of their background or circumstances.

[Caption: Aaron Dworkin]