Afa Dworkin on What's Next for the Sphinx Organization
Taking place from January 25-28, selections of the 2023 Sphinx Competition and SphinxConnect will be streamed LIVE on The Violin Channel
Founded in 1997, the Sphinx Organization is a social justice group working to increase the representation of Black and Latinx artists in classical music.
Its annual conference, SphinxConnect, is the largest and longest-standing convention dedicated to diversity and inclusion in the classical music industry, while the national Sphinx Competition is an annual event that offers young Black and Latinx classical string players the opportunity to perform before an internationally renowned jury and be mentored by top industry professionals.
Held in Detroit, Michigan, the conference and competition will be streamed LIVE on The Violin Channel. Tune in for the competition's Junior Division Finals on January 27 and Senior Division Finals on January 28, in addition to select talks of the conference from January 26-28.
We had a chance to catch up with Afa Dworkin, Sphinx Organization President and Artistic Director, to look back on the organization's history and look forward to what's to come.
2022 was Sphinx Organization’s 25th Anniversary. With this year’s SphinxConnect Conference being back together in person, how do you plan to celebrate?
Being live in person this year is particularly meaningful: we expect more than 1,000 people to join us for the convening and signature events. In addition to luminaries like Denyce Graves and Michael R Jackson, we look forward to the Sphinx Symphony's performance with our Exigence Vocal Ensemble, with a program exclusively featuring masterpieces by Black and Latinx composers. Those presentations will be under the auspices of the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor as well as the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts in DC. It is a year not to be missed, with some of the most stellar talents in the country gathering and sharing their art.
What has remained the same since the founding of the organization? What, in your opinion, has significantly evolved?
We have remained true to the founding vision and mission, as well as our core values. Sphinx has always been about transforming lives/transforming and enriching the entire field through the awesome power of diversity. It was true during the inaugural Sphinx Competition in 1998, and it remains so poignantly true today. What has evolved is perhaps the scale of our work: we have expanded significantly in the area of arts leadership, collaborations, and innovative field-wide partnerships, now boasting 350 partners, growing our orchestral partners from two to 118, investing more than 10MM in the careers of our artists and committing our investment in the field in an artist-centric manner, where the needs are aspirations of our artists and leaders come first. With more than 1,000+ alumni, Sphinx is able to deepen its impact through their leadership and vision.
Do you think the classical music industry is evolving in the right direction in terms of DEI?
I think that there are many promising developments in the arena in the areas of evolving our canon, centering the voices of Black and Latinx leaders and artists, and shifting our commitment to inclusive partnerships and presentations. More must be done (rather than just discussed) as it relates to representation on the stage of American orchestras as well as seeking and appointing diverse leadership to major artistic institutions. Those efforts have been unnecessarily incremental, and the time is more than right to move in a more concrete, decisive direction. It would be a grandiose loss to the entire field and its pursuit of excellence if we did not cease this very moment to specifically do more in these areas at a time when the talent, goodwill, and readiness are at such a high level.
Sphinx began in 1997 as a singular initiative with the Sphinx Competition for young Black and Latinx string players. How did you, and the organization’s founder Aaron Dworkin, decide to expand your initiatives and resources beyond the competition?
Our Founder, Aaron Dworkin, has always seen Sphinx as an entrepreneurial institution that is sensitive and responsive to the needs of our artists and, frankly, those of the field. The competition was born out of a desire and a need to showcase and support the young talented artists who possess the talent but may lack the resources and, more importantly, the network. It accomplished that and created a community, La Familia, which is the most significant and consequential accomplishment of our work. When it was clear that the young artists needed that support, we built our programs in the reverse direction to expose, encourage, support, and mentor the young members of the family and prepare them for a life in the arts. When more needed to be done in the professional arena, we responded by building several professional touring ensembles that champion music by historically excluded composers and support living composers of color. Since our Founder's transition from his staff role, he remained an advisor to some of this important evolution and an area where we have invested so heavily has been artist leadership, innovation, and collaboration.
Can you tell us about some of your early Sphinx alumni and where they are at now?
Joseph Conyers, associate principal bass, Philadelphia Orchestra
Elena Urioste, solo violinist, and entrepreneur/founder of Kaleidoscope Collective
Melissa White, founding violinist of Harlem Quartet
Tai Murray, an acclaimed international soloist, and violin faculty at Yale
I encourage you to learn and share more about our alumni by visiting this page!
How does the Sphinx network support the younger, up-and-coming artists of today? How important do you think mentorship is to the new generation of artists?
To learn more about our educational programs, please see our work through Overture and Sphinx Performance Academy. We reach more than 10,000 annually through our programming and our work focuses on both introductory mentorship as well as developing and sustaining the talent of our SPA students, who aim to remain in music for their college careers.
Do you have a favorite or a few favorite, highlights of the past 25 years?
There are too many to note, but our celebration at Carnegie Hall this past October as well as our Sphinx Virtuosi international debut in Sala Sao Paulo stand out as incredible highlights.
What are you most excited about in the next year of your programming?
Our inaugural residency in the UK this summer, featuring members of the Sphinx Virtuosi, their inaugural album under Deutsche Gramophone, the tours of our Exigence ensemble, and multiple unique commissions, including a concerto for two basses by Xavier Foley, along with a collaboration with Abel Selacoe at Carnegie Hall!
If an artist or professional wants to expand diversity and inclusion in their organization, what advice would you give them?
I encourage them to lead from every seat: select, study, and perform music by diverse composers, contribute to more equitable hiring and engagement practices, champion artists, colleagues, and candidates whose voices can use amplification, and do the right thing when no one is asking or looking.
We are coming up to the 2023 Sphinx Competition and SphinxConnect. What can audiences and participants look forward to?
The record number of Semi-Finalists competing for 100K+ in prizes and scholarships, concerti by Black and Latin composers featured in the required repertoire, a unique Sphinx Symphony led by Kalena Bovell (who is a conductor a poet AND a violinist), 80+ speakers, artists, leaders from around the world discussing more important topics surrounding DEI in the arts. This is where our work and all of our programs converge, and it is the largest and longest-standing convening of artists, allies, and leaders, dedicated to diversity and excellence in the field. For so many reasons, including our legendary hometown of Detroit, MI, one would not want to miss it!