How Detroit’s Sphinx Virtuosi is amping up diversity in classical music
By Patrick Dunn
Violinist Jannina Norpoth has played Carnegie Hall many times, but the experience is never quite the same as when she performs there with the Sphinx Virtuosi. “You walk onstage and people cheer you on like you’re rock stars,” says Norpoth, 37, a Detroit native. “There are very few classical concerts where I’ve experienced that kind of excitement from an audience.”
For many audience members, the enthusiasm for Sphinx Virtuosi’s annual performance at Carnegie comes from seeing themselves represented onstage in classical performance for the first time. That’s because the professional chamber orchestra is composed of 18 Black and Latinx soloists — a rarity in the classical-music world, which Norpoth, who is biracial, says “can be a very narrow-minded, stifling place.”
According to a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras, the number of musicians of color in American orchestras was 14.2% in 2014, but that figure represented mostly Asians and Pacific Islanders. The proportion of Black and Latinx musicians, on the other hand, had hovered around 2% for over a decade prior to the study’s release.
That’s not because there’s any lack of talented musicians of color — only a lack of intentional inclusion, says Afa Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting diversity in the arts. (Sphinx Virtuosi is just one of the organization’s programs.) African Americans were once barred from auditioning from orchestras, as they were from so many other activities, and a spirit of exclusion still lingers over an industry that Dworkin says “isn’t known to be a particularly reflective or a welcoming community.” (It’s worth noting that other ensembles, like Philadelphia’s Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and Memphis’ PRIZM Ensemble, have emphasized performers of color, but none for as long as the Virtuosi.)
Over its 23-year history, the Sphinx Organization has sought to combat that through a robust slate of programs. In the past two years alone, it’s launched the National Alliance for Audition Support, which offers Black and Latinx musicians mentoring, financial support, and audition preparation; created the Sphinx Venture Fund, with plans to invest $1.5 million over five years in projects that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in performing arts; and received a $3 million grant, the largest in its history, from Fund II Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on social change.
“We ultimately believe that classical music isn’t going to thrive, let alone survive, unless it is represented by voices from our communities,” says Dworkin, who’s traveled the world as a classical violinist and now lives in Ann Arbor.
The Virtuosi were founded in 2004, spinning out of Sphinx’s national competition for young Black and Latinx string players held annually in Detroit. (Virtuosi members come from across the country, and most are former Sphinx Competition laureates or semi-finalists.) Violinist and Melissa White, who is Black, says it “blew [her] mind” to see so many other young string players of color when she joined the competition at age 12. She went on to become a member of the orchestra’s inaugural class.
“It was like a sports team traveling together,” says White, 35, a Lansing native who now lives in Chicago. “We held each other up to a high standard when we were onstage and took care of each other offstage. We were away from our families, so we became each other’s families.”
Virtuosi members have taken an active role in shaping the ensemble. In 2011 the group’s name changed from the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra to the Sphinx Virtuosi (the plural of “virtuoso”), and it abandoned a string of traditional conductors in favor of a conductorless approach more akin to acclaimed outfits like New York City’s Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. That change was based on feedback from members including White and Norpoth.
“Sphinx is the kind of organization that responds to change and listens to its musicians, and so we said, ‘Let’s give it a whirl,’” says Sphinx founder Aaron Dworkin, Afa’s husband and a national leader on music and diversity. (President Obama selected Dworkin as his first appointment to the National Council on the Arts.) “We did and it turned out phenomenally.”
The approach allows each member to contribute to creative decisions and recognizes them as individual artists. Afa says the change has “built a sense of ownership and leadership” among the Virtuosi. “They almost define how they’re seen by presenting houses, by audiences across the nation,” she says. “In the end, it’s the artists who will shape the narrative and who will lead the narrative.”
The orchestra’s repertoire heavily spotlights works by composers of color, from legendary Argentine tango musician Astor Piazzolla to Michael Abels, who scored Jordan Peele’s films “Get Out” and “Us.” “I love to learn music that hasn’t been played a thousand times, because I get to put my own stamp on it,” Norpoth says.
Virtuosi members are mulling ways to continue reaching audiences via videos or livestreams if the COVID-19 pandemic results in the cancellation of their 2020 tour this fall. That experience strikes a stark contrast with the personal connections members often create with audience members. The Virtuosi usually do community outreach work prior to their shows; part of that includes offering discounted tickets to those who might not otherwise attend a classical music concert. Aaron Dworkin recalls the story of young girl who asked, crying and emotionally overwhelmed, to meet one of the musicians after a Virtuosi performance.
“I pulled one member off the bus and they hugged and had this wonderful conversation,” he says. “It was just in that moment that racial background, cultural background, geography of background just evaporated and all that was important was that two young people had connected over music.”
Playing with the Virtuosi also leaves a major impact on its members. White says being on the road with the orchestra early in her career gave her “performance practice” that she’s applied to her career in projects like the Harlem Quartet, another Sphinx ensemble, of which she’s a founding member. “It was a time I built up stamina,” White says. “I built up courage and felt supported. You remember what that experience felt like … and you want to keep recreating it.”
Norpoth — who lives in New York and has performed alongside artists like Beyonce and Stevie Wonder — now has her own string quartet, the Grammy-nominated PUBLIQuartet, but she says that might never have happened if not for the “camaraderie” she found in the Virtuosi.
“Growing up in a racially mixed family, I was that much more aware of the inequities that exist because I came across them all the time,” she says. “There’s a lot of places in the classical music community where I just didn’t feel like I belonged. I might not have stuck it out with music if I didn’t have the community I have.”