Sphinx Virtuosi: Bringing Chamber Music To A Diverse Society

Sep 27, 2013

With the jazz-age music of Jewish-American composer George Gerswhin, an appreciation for the music of African-American culture first appeared in concert halls. But it wasn't until the 1990's, when an entrepreneur got the idea of endowing a national competition that recognizes African-American and Hispanic classical musicians where Americans began seeing diversity on the concert stage.

Sphinx Virtuosi violinist Jessie Montgomery.
Credit The Sphinx Organization

Entrepreneur Aaron Dworkin created the Sphinx competition to recognize the best classical musicians of color - particularly on the orchestra stage.  Now in its 16th year, his vision has made a notable difference in American orchestras. Over the last six years, a recent study found almost a doubling of people of color performing with American orchestras.

Jessie Montgomery is a Sphinx award winner and now tours with her peers from that competition called the Sphinx Virtuosi. The violinist is also the ensemble’s composer-in-residence.  Montgomery says the Sphinx organization is branching out.  

“They started with the mission of bringing about more access and more recognition of Black and Latino performers. They have education programs that house between 60 and 150 students studying music. Also, they are very connected with schools and community organizations in the inner-city. They'll fill Carnegie Hall with an entirely different clientele than is usually there. They do it every year for the past 10 years with the Sphinx Virtuosi and they're consistent with it and that’s the most amazing thing about it," said Montgomery.

In addition to diversifying the concert stage, Sphinx also helped build a community for its alumni.

“Because of the way the competition is structured, each participant can return as long as you didn't place first. The reason they design it that way is that it can encourage network-building. Each year when you come back there's a new pool of participants and returning participants and we build these connections over the years,” said Montgomery.

Montgomery admits her home was not typical in the African-American community.   The support that fed her passion for classical music goes back two generations, with grandfathers who were musically inclined. Both her parents were also artists.   

"When European music came over here it was in a high class/upper class of listening and education and because of the divide there just was no access to black students or blacks that were interested. It took a few individuals over a few hundred years of American history to find an interest in it and to find an avenue,” said Montgomery.

The Sphinx Virtuosi and Catalyst Quartet performs Tuesday evening October 8th at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. On the program will be works of J-S Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Argentinian composer Astor Piazzola and a newly commissioned piece from Jessie Montgomery called Strum.