Music News & Reviews

Sphinx Virtuosi is changing the face of classical music

Ade Williams, 16, will be a featured soloist at Thursday's concert at Centre College.
Ade Williams, 16, will be a featured soloist at Thursday's concert at Centre College.

Like many ensembles, the Sphinx Virtuosi, which perform Thursday at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts, would like to change the sounds of classical music. But the group also wants to change the genre's complexion.

"Nationally, less than 4 percent of American orchestras — of which we have approximately 1,200 — are black and Latino combined," says Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, executive and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization, which oversees the Sphinx Virtuosi and numerous other endeavors. "That number has grown since the inception of Sphinx, and in fact, the number of African-Americans in major U.S. orchestras has doubled.

"So there has been some amount of progress, but the progress has been marginal as compared to the time line and representation of population of major minority groups in the field."

So Sphinx has helped to change things and aims to continue change by creating opportunities for black and Latino musicians to perform and grow.

The group was founded in 1997 by Afa's husband, Aaron Dworkin, a violinist who said he was always the only minority musician, or one of only a handful, in classes and performances as he pursued the violin.

"Anytime I'd go to an orchestra concert, I'd look on stage, I'd look around me in the audience, and wonder, 'Why is there no one who looks like me?" Aaron Dworkin says in a video on

Afa Dworkin says there are historic and cultural reasons for the lack of diversity in classical music performance and academia.

"Historically, certainly African-Americans were not included in the field, and the same goes for Latinos, so it's not part of the conventional culture, and historically our orchestras have been predominantly white," she says. "So now, to overcome that — and many of the young people the we touch through our educational and grass-roots programs, as well as a lot of their families, don't feel included in this field and don't feel it's an integral part of their culture — so we're working to overcome a much more complex set of circumstances."

(Dworkin says she is frequently asked why Sphinx does not work with Asian musicians. She says Asians are actually over-represented in classical music performance and academia, relative to their population as a whole.)

The centerpiece of Sphinx is the annual Sphinx competition in Detroit, a contest for black and Latino string musicians, in a junior division for ages 18 and younger and a senior division for ages 18 to 26.

The Sphinx Virtuosi is a conductorless 18-member ensemble made up of competition veterans and winners, many of whom enjoy careers with orchestras or as soloists and chamber musicians. The group's annual tour always includes a stop at New York's Carnegie Hall and regular dates in Chicago and Miami, and the music is as diverse as the musicians on stage.

Thursday's program, titled Dialogue Between Two Eras, features music by baroque composers and 20th-century composers who were influenced by them. That includes Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was dubbed "the African Mahler" in some circles, and Argentine star Astor Piazolla, who was heavily influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music also is on the concert.

"The idea is to broaden the audience and entice them with new music, while also offering them gems that they've come to love," Dworkin says.

The lineup will include the Catalyst Quartet, a Sphinx Ensemble, and 16-year-old violin soloist Adé Williams, winner of the contest's junior division in 2012.

In addition to performing, the Sphinx Virtuosi will participate in educational events with students from Centre and grade schools in the area. Dworkin says reaching kids is important to Sphinx's mission.

"There really is a sense of magic when young people are able to make music for the first time," Dworkin says. "When we come into elementary schools all the way through high school, there is a great deal of receptivity. When young people meet our laureates, there's almost a populist effect, as if a pop star like Jay-Z came in to perform for them."


Sphinx Virtuosi

What: Chamber ensemble made up of competitors and winners in the Detroit-based Sphinx competition for black and Latino musicians.

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10.

Where: Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts, 600 Walnut St., Danville.

Tickets: $24-$46. Available at box office, 1-877-448-7469 or