Winning a major competition is a rite of passage for many young classical musicians. But for every Ryan Speedo Green (a laureate of the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions) and Horacio Gutiérrez (silver medalist in the 1970 International Tchaikovsky Competition), there are countless other talented African-American and Latino musicians who may not get the chance to compete on the world stage.
The Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, a pioneer in the movement to promote diversity in the arts by advocating for black and Latino classical musicians, is working to make sure they do. Since 1998, the prestigious Sphinx Competition has served as a career springboard for dozens of up-and-coming string players of color, including the three laureates who will appear in Zankel Hall on May 3: violinist Elena Urioste, cellist Gabriel Cabezas, and bassist Xavier Foley.
In addition to launching performing groups like the Sphinx Virtuosi, Catalyst Quartet, Harlem Quartet, and the newly formed vocal ensemble Exigence, Sphinx offers a full spectrum of educational and professional enrichment programs, from music lessons in public schools to scholarships to career networking. But the competition, held each year in February, is the organization’s “flagship program,” says President and Artistic Director Afa Dworkin.
“Part of its conception, its genesis, was to identify and engage the top young talent in black and Latino communities, and provide these young artists a platform to showcase their talents, learn from a globally renowned panel of judges, and develop professionally year-round,” Dworkin says. “From that initial effort stem many subprograms devoted to furthering access, providing additional resources, coachings, mentor access, and performance opportunities.”
Carnegie Hall, too, has a long tradition of transcending racial, ethnic, and cultural barriers. In 1892, soprano Sissieretta Jones, renowned as the “Black Patti,” became the first African American artist to grace the Hall’s main stage, where six decades later Arsenio Rodríguez would introduce American audiences to the intoxicating rhythms of the cha-cha. The Sphinx laureates are aware of this history, but—in what is surely an encouraging sign—agree that it’s increasingly irrelevant to them on a personal level.
“Although being a musician of color has become a general point of pride for me over the course of my career,” Urioste says, “at no point when I’ve stepped onto any of the three stages at Carnegie Hall over the last 13 years have I been thinking about the color of my skin. Thinking about my relative rarity in the field is certainly not my priority when I’m in the midst of music-making in one of the most magical halls in the world.”
Foley, who notes that he was “raised in an environment of racial equality,” is nonetheless cognizant of the systemic barriers that confront many black and Latino classical musicians. “I have never felt the need to strategically identify myself as a ‘person of color.’ I understand, however, that not every other individual feels the same way I do, which is why I hope that my participation in high-visibility concert halls, such as Carnegie Hall, will give a sign of hope for those aspiring classical musicians who feel marginalized in today’s society.”
At a time when many American orchestras and opera companies are reflecting on their relevance to contemporary society, the goal of making classical music more inclusive has taken on fresh urgency. A recent report by Andrés T. Tapia noted that “it is no secret that classical music audiences in the US have been overwhelmingly white and older.” Unless orchestras find ways to attract “younger and nonwhite audiences” in greater numbers, Tapia warned, many will simply disappear.
The report’s title, “How Diversity Can Help Save Classical Music,” expresses one of the Sphinx Organization’s core values and objectives. Over the past two decades, the proportion of Latino and black musicians in American orchestras has roughly doubled, from two to more than four percent. According to Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson, Sphinx has played “a vital role” in stimulating this growth through its “ongoing commitment to the central issue of diversity.”
Urioste, for whom diversity is a “kaleidoscopic term” that doesn’t apply exclusively to skin color, aspires to make classical music “available in equal opportunity to as many groups of people as possible.” Cabezas has a subtly different take on diversity—as a way to enrich the classical music narrative. “So many different people of varied backgrounds have experiences and interactions with classical music, and telling their stories can create a more complete story about the music we share and the industry that we’re in.”
As the person ultimately responsible for gauging the success of Sphinx’s various initiatives, Dworkin sees ample reason to be optimistic. “The metrics change each year, but ultimately, success is affirmed each time a single laureate performs with a major orchestra (it now happens 25 times a year), or another one enters the ranks of an orchestra as a fellow or a permanent member. Each time one of our artists is recognized by the field and the society overall, it is a moment to celebrate.”
Dworkin believes that Sphinx’s mission has never been more relevant than it is today. “During what is a turbulent, uncertain, and divisive time, our artists have led the way, setting examples on how the arts can and should unite people. The overall community of allies and supporters has never been larger and stronger. It is an important time to remember the value of our art form and its capacity to heal and empower.”