October 5, 2014
URBANA — At first glance, many audience members might find the Sphinx Virtuosi classical music orchestra an odd sight on stage.
That's because the ensemble's 18 members are black and Latino. The Big Five and other major orchestras are made up of predominantly white musicians and have been for a long while.
"A lot of people are sort of delighted by our profile on stage," said Sphinx violinist and composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery. "It's one that they haven't seen and they're always pleasantly surprised. The idea is to make it not seem odd, that classical music is everybody."
And that's why the Sphinx Virtuosi, which performs Tuesday evening at Krannert Center, is so important, she said. The string players come together each fall to tour — with a final concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. The Virtuosi are an ensemble of the Sphinx Organization, a national nonprofit founded by Aaron P. Dworkin to promote black and Latino classical musicians.
The young Latino and black musicians come to the ensemble through the annual Sphinx Competition in Detroit. The finalists win the chance to perform with the professional Sphinx Virtuosi — now on a 15-city tour that includes Urbana.
"This orchestra is made up of professionals mostly, of varying levels," Montgomery said. "Some are in other orchestras; some are soloists. Some are still in college, finishing up advanced degrees."
One member this year, though, is Hannah White, who's 14 and been described as a violin prodigy. Her mom accompanies her on the tour.
"She's home-schooled, which is why she is able to come out," Montgomery said. "Every year, we try to feature at least one younger performer to give them the opportunity to work with a professional ensemble."
Sphinx also has the mission of presenting music by composers of diverse backgrounds.
"We perform music by Latino and African-American composers who might not be as well-known but who are living today to support the new music being created by those people," Montgomery said Thursday by phone from Austin, Texas.
The program: "Coquetteos" by Gabriela Lena Frank; "Prayers of Rain and Wind," John B. Hedges; Sinfonietta No.1 for Strings, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson; "Banner," Jessie Montgomery, commissioned by the Sphinx Organization; "Allaqi," Marcus Goddard; "Voyage" for String Orchestra, John Corigliano; Two Pieces for String Orchestra, Aaron Copland; and "Elevations," Mark O'Connor