Names like Samuel Barber and George Gershwin are well associated with the “American style” of classical music. But, they are only the tip of the American classical iceberg. Classical music history buffs will know that the all too famous Antonín Dvořák’s “American Symphony” was inspired in part by Black spirituals, as well as themes from Native American music. That piece was a mosaic of the cultural richness in American history, and the contributions and inspirations to one of Dvořák’s most famous works are unfortunately not common knowledge.
BIPOC composers, such as Harry T. Burleigh, Florence Price and Carlos Chavez have long been shaping the North American classical landscape, incorporating cultural themes, hymns and spirituals in their compositions. Their contributions are unfortunately under-appreciated and are not commonly taught as iconic repertoire. The Sphinx Organization and Sphinx Virtuosi are here to change that.
The Sphinx Organization was founded by Professor Aaron P. Dworkin, a professor of Arts at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance. Inspired by the power and wisdom of the mythical creature, the Sphinx, Dworkin’s goal in founding the Sphinx Organization was to ensure that classical music became more inclusive towards traditionally underrepresented communities, such as communities of color.
The Sphinx Organization addresses the need for greater diversity in music education, repertoire, audiences and leadership. Some ways they offer educational opportunities is through various ensembles, grants, competitions and the Sphinx Performance Academy, among other efforts.
The Sphinx Virtuosi group, which came to Madison Sept. 30 to perform at the Shannon Hall in Memorial Union, is a chamber orchestra made up of 18 world-class Black and Latinx musicians. Receiving many accolades and selling out shows, Sphinx Virtuosi presents invigorating works by a diverse group of artists to make classical music more accessible to a wider audience.
Sphinx Virtuosi is currently on a national tour, performing a program titled “Tracing Visions.” This program seeks to “evolve our ‘classical canon’” and to “tell a more complete story of America.”
Classical composers of color have always been composing music and telling their stories — the program includes works by composers such as Alberto Ginastera and Xavier Foley, a Sphinx soloist.
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Here’s a little more information on the program. The program opened with Foley’s original composition “Ev’ry Voice,” which is Foley’s vision of a Black National Anthem. This was followed by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Four Novelletten,” which was performed in many of his programs and features a rich violin solo. Next, a movement from “String Quartet No.2 in A minor,” composed by Florence Price was played. In addition, “SEVEN,” by Andrea Casarrubios was specially dedicated towards those who have fought in the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The next works, “Inocente” and “Mourinho” incorporated influences from Cuban musical culture. Finally, the concert closed with “Concerto for Strings” by Alberto Ginastera. Bringing works by these composers, who are part of the rich history of America, are meant to show a more comprehensive “vision of America.”
The University of Wisconsin campus is run by the Wisconsin Idea, the principle that education should impact the community beyond a university’s campus. Sphinx Virtuosi and The Sphinx Organization enrich the lives of students, musicians and the communities around them in a number of ways. This specific program is also meant to invite those who are usually not a participant in classical music concerts.
Sphinx Virtuosi aim to demystify and create a safe space for an art form that has a reputation for being intimidating and posh. With a fun, electrifying program and a safe space for both returning classical music aficionados and those who have never been to a concert before, this is a program you want to see over and over again.