Sphinx Virtuosi's mission is to add diversity to classical music

Sphinx Virtuosi's mission is to add diversity to classical music

URBANA — At first glance, many audience members might find the Sphinx Virtuosiorchestra 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.

They come to the ensemble through the annual Sphinx Competition in Detroit. The finalists win the chance to perform with the Sphinx Virtuosi — now on a 15-city tour.

"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 is Hannah White, who's 14 and has 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 tour stop Austin, Texas.

Sphinx's goal of diversifying the ranks of major orchestras is a slow go, but the organization is helping, Montgomery said. Sphinx fosters the careers of young black and Latino players,  with some receiving scholarships and admission to prestigious conservatories or one-year or trial residencies in major orchestras.

"The student or the young professional is still in competition with the other musicians to hopefully get a spot," she said. "But it's the opportunity to sit down and try. In that sense, Sphinx actually has helped a bit with its mission to help diversify the orchestras and conservatories. And certainly they've done a great job with audiences."

Sphinx recruits youths from inner-city schools to attend Sphinx concert.

"In the end, it's about building it up from who's growing up now into the culture of classical music," Montgomery said. "That's sort of the best marker. They're doing a lot."

And the Sphinx Virtuosi garner rave reviews wherever they play.

"It's a great bunch of players," Montgomery said. "We work hard at it and I think we have a good time. I think the audiences can hear that."

Montgomery started playing an instrument as a young girl, at one of the oldest music schools in the country, the Third Street Music Settlement in Manhattan, where she grew up.

"It was an after-school activity for me as a kid," she said. "It ended up being something I loved. My parents are both artists so it wasn't out of the question that I would pursue an artistic career. When I was 13 years old, I decided I would play the violin forever."

As a composer, she was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization for this tour to write "Banner." In it, the Catalyst Quartet plays as soloists while the other Sphinx Virtuosi act as the orchestra.

"Banner" fits well with the "Americana" tour theme because this is the 200th anniversary year of the "Star Spangled Banner" being named the national anthem, she said.

As usual, though, the Sphinx Virtuosi and Catalyst Quartet perform older and newer music. Among the best-known composers whose tunes are being played as part of this tour: Aaron Copland, "Two Pieces for String Orchestra"; John Corigliano, "Voyage for String Orchestra"; and Mark O'Connor, "Elevations."

O'Connor is an honorary board member of the Sphinx organization; famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma is its special artistic adviser.

"Mark O'Connor, of course, is a huge advocate for American folk music, for bridging folk and classical together," Montgomery said. "He's done it so seamlessly. Those are probably the strongholds of the program."

If you go

What: Sphinx Virtuosi with Catalyst Quartet

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U

Tickets: $37 for adults; $32, senior citizens; $15, students; $10, University of Illinois students and youths. Choral balcony seats are $15 for all adults and $10 for UI students and youths

Information: 333-6280 or krannertcenter.com

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

Topics (1):Music