Inside SphinxConnect 2020

Presenter Blake-Anthony Johnson, Louisville Orchestra, speaking on Courageous Conversations & Setting a Bold Vision. Photo: Joanna Borowski.

By Joanna Borowski, Director of Education, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

The Sphinx Organization is dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. The distinctive mission of Sphinx, within that context, is to address the underrepresentation of people of color in classical music at every level. Earlier this month, artists and arts leaders from all over the world converged on snowy Detroit—Sphinx’s home base—for a week of Sphinx signature programs, culminating in the fourth annual convening of the SphinxConnect conference.

Before the conference kicked off, the Sphinx Orchestral Partners Auditions (SOPA) provided musicians of color the opportunity to play for a panel representing more than 30 partner orchestras. With the goal of job placement in American orchestras, the SOPA auditions are a catalyst for invitations to and/or pre-advancement at auditions, as well as placement on substitute lists. Additional networking and learning opportunities are extended to SOPA musicians who attend SphinxConnect. Running concurrently with the SOPA auditions was a retreat for two cohorts of Sphinx LEAD (Leaders in Excellence, Arts & Diversity), a professional development program for arts leaders of color.

The Thursday evening Opening Plenary of SphinxConnect featured a welcome address by Sphinx President and Artistic Director Afa Dworkin, as well as an interview with composer Michael Abels (best known for his scores for the films Get Out and Us) by Rochelle Riley, Director of Arts and Culture for the City of Detroit. Over the course of the next two days, the various conference sessions—inspired by the collective theme of “Vision!”—provided over 600 attendees with perspectives from musicians, industry leaders, funders, educators, administrators, students, and parents. For example, the session “Great Expectations: Artistic Excellence through Social Emotional Development” outlined a path forward for students through equity in standards, community building through special projects, and creating deliberate experiences. Another session, “Consensus 2.0 = Fuhgetaboutit” (US slang for “forget about it!”), featured a discussion about leaders and team members alike challenging the status quo and embracing dissent.

In contrast to other national gatherings in the overall US movement for music for social change, Sphinx emphasizes competition as one of its prime mechanisms of advancement. One highlight of the agenda—with $25,000 at stake—was Sphinx Tank, an interactive session with the goal of identifying the next great cultural entrepreneur. Four projects were pitched to a panel of experts, and Gabrielle Molina emerged as the winner for Teaching Artists International, with a mission of developing global citizen musicians.

The conference also included Sphinx performance competitions in both a Junior Division (ages 17 and under) and a Senior Division (ages 18 to 30). An intensive process involving preliminary and live rounds, the Sphinx Competition offers both cash awards (ranging from $3,000 to $50,000) and professional performance and mentorship opportunities.

Sphinx Finals Conference. Photo: Joanna Borowski.

The Honors Concert, in which the three Junior Division finalists competed, took place on Friday afternoon. It was a full house, with the orchestra seats filled with children from area schools while SphinxConnect attendees looked on from the upper levels. 14-year-old violinist Esme Arias-Kim achieved first place, with 14-year-old cellist Brandon Leonard and 17-year-old violinist Sophia Ayer awarded second and third place, respectively. (While the judges were conferring, guest conductor Carlos Andrés Botero delighted the young audience with a lively Q&A session. One youngster inquired about the maestro’s favorite piece to conduct. Botero’s answer? “All of them!”)

The Closing Plenary session was led by Joseph Conyers, the assistant principal bass player of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who is highly active in his city’s robust music-for-social-change coalition. Ending the conference was the final concert of the three Senior Division finalists, which also featured the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Roderick Cox. Twenty-one-year-old cellist Gabriel Martins, a student at New England Conservatory of Music, was awarded the top prize of $50,000. Bassist Aaron Olguin placed second and received the Audience Choice Award. Violist Jordan Bak, a student at Juilliard, placed third.

Following the presentation of the awards, the concert concluded with a multimedia piece created by Sphinx founder Aaron Dworkin. Titled The American Rhapsody, the work involves spoken-word excerpts from the writings of George Washington set to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Symphonic Variations on an African Air. Dworkin performed as the spoken word artist.

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