Sunday, October 3, 2021 Sphinx Virtuosi paint more complete picture of American classical music with new program ‘Tracing Visions’

Prof. Aaron P. Dworkin

University of Wisconsin

Rachael Lee

October 3, 2021

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.

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. 

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