Competition gives minorities a classical opportunity

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

— Aaron Dworkin loves classical music. He began playing violin at age 5 and hasn't stopped.

But while majoring in violin performance at the University of Michigan, he had a revelation. After being introduced to the music of black composer William Grant Still, Dworkin approached a professor with the idea of a competition exclusively for black and Hispanic string players.

"I started thinking about why, in every musical situation I was in, I was the only minority, black or Latino, or maybe one of less than a handful," said Dworkin, 32, who is black. "And I started to think about kind of why and what I could do about it."

So Dworkin, with the university's support, launched the Sphinx Organization. The Dearborn-based group's showcase event, the sixth annual Sphinx Competition, started Feb. 11 and wraps up today.

Organizers hope it will ultimately increase the number of minority musicians in symphony orchestras. According to the American Symphony Orchestra League, blacks and Latinos made up between 3 percent and 4 percent of regular musicians in U.S. professional orchestras in 2001.

"I think it's a question that all of the major orchestras have been struggling with for a number of years," said Emil Kang, president of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which has three blacks and one Hispanic among its 98 full-time positions.

"It all boils down to the fact that there are few in the pool. There are fewer that actually audition."


AP Photo

Gareth Johnson, shown in this undated photo, has played with the Boston Pops and the Baltimore and Atlanta symphonies. The Sphinx Competition gives minority musicians an opportunity to play with major orchestras. During the first Sphinx Competition, there was only one orchestral partner: the National Symphony. Now, there are 28.

Sanford Allen, a Sphinx jury panelist and one of the first black musicians to become a member of the New York Philharmonic, said that although large orchestras say they want to hire minorities, they aren't looking hard enough.

"Clearly, the attention to recruiting could not in any way be described as aggressive, and in some cases, they could not be described as active," he said.

The Sphinx Competition gives minority musicians an opportunity to play with major orchestras. In its first year, it had only one orchestral partner, the National Symphony; this year, there are 28.

"Now we have orchestras contacting us wanting to feature our winners, because they've heard about it and because our winners, our laureates, have developed a reputation," Dworkin said. "They know if they're getting a Sphinx laureate, they know the level, the caliber that musician will be at."

Sphinx also has created an orchestra composed of blacks and Hispanics that performs works by minority composers at an annual concert at Detroit's Orchestra Hall.