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Sphinx Virtuosi brings diverse group of musicians to Ogden next week

By Mark Saal, Standard-Examiner - | Mar 5, 2020
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Sphinx Virtuosi performs a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City on October 11, 2019. Prior to the concert, they rehearsed on the stage in Isaac Stern auditorium. Soloists: J'Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano; Will Liverman, baritone; Damien Sneed, piano; Xavier Foley, bass; and Ruben Rengel, violin.

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Afa Dworkin, president and artistic director of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization.

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Sphinx Virtousi will perform Wednesday, March 11, at Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden.

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Sphinx Virtousi will perform Wednesday, March 11, at Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden.

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Sphinx Virtousi will perform Wednesday, March 11, at Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden.

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Sphinx Virtousi will perform Wednesday, March 11, at Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden.

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Sphinx Virtousi will perform Wednesday, March 11, at Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden.

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Sphinx Virtousi will perform Wednesday, March 11, at Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden.

OGDEN — Prefer your music with a little social justice, and a whole lot more diversity?

Local presenter Onstage Ogden has a concert for you.

Sphinx Virtuosi, an 18-piece ensemble of top black and Latinx classical music soloists, will perform “For Justice and Peace” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, in Peery’s Egyptian Theater, 2415 Washington Blvd. The program will feature music aimed at addressing issues that are important to the nation’s increasingly diverse communities.

Sphinx Virtuosi is the premier ensemble for the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which describes itself as a social justice organization dedicated to “transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.” Founded in 1997 by Aaron Dworkin, then an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, the organization attempts to address the under-representation of people of color in classical music. Its programs reach more than 100,000 students.

“This is our first visit to the state, and we’re very excited to be performing in Ogden,” said Afa Dworkin, president and artistic director of the organization. “And we have some alumni of our other programs who hail from Utah, so there’s bit of a family connection. We look forward to sharing performances and building the community there.”

Among the pieces expected to be played at Wednesday’s concert are “Divertimento for String Orchestra” by Bela Bartok; “Global Warming” by Michael Abels, “For Justice and Peace” by Xavier Foley, “Source Code” by Jessie Montgomery, and “Death and the Maiden” by Franz Schubert.

“If you’ve never seen the Virtuosi, one could definitely expect it is likely the most diverse conglomerate collection of musicians to promote diversity and share excellent musicianship,” Dworkin said.

Dworkin said the ensemble, which is self-conducted, “first and foremost” strives for professional artistic excellence. But it also gravitates toward making those artistic decisions that explore themes like justice, equality and fairness for all.

“The beauty of art is central to the work we do, but we see it as a vehicle or avenue through which to connect to larger issues that matter to society,” she said. “The story is about equity, inclusion and belonging. We would all love to not just survive, but thrive — and we want to be represented by voices that are reflective of the community.”

Dworkin said that despite the rather weighty subject matter of the upcoming concert — the group often approaches music through a sort of “artistic anthropology” lens — the goal of Sphinx Virtuosi is to never lecture audiences about their social responsibilities.

“We want to stay away from ever appearing preachy,” she said. “But we do want to establish a narrative in the community.”

To that end, Wednesday’s “For Justice and Peace” concert will be more than just music, according to Dworkin. The group’s emphasis is on performing pieces by emerging and living composers, so that the concert audience members will hear from the composers who created the music.

“What is unusual about this group of musicians is that they’re connecting and engaging with the audience,” Dworkin said. “They’re not just straight performers.”

The members of Sphinx Virtuosi are alumni of the Sphinx Competition, an annual event held in Detroit for young black and Latinx classical string players with prizes ranging from $3,000 to $50,000. The competition is just a part of what Dworkin calls a “pipeline” in which her organization provides young musicians of color a pathway for developing their art. That pipeline includes classes, summer camps and other educational opportunities; assistance in getting instruments into the hands of struggling musicians; the chance to perform in groups like Sphinx Virtuosi and the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra; and extensive arts leadership training.

This isn’t only about creating artists and artistic endeavors, according to Dworkin. It’s also about developing a diverse group of arts administrators, leaders and entrepreneurs.

“The way we know we are successful is to look one step beyond us — look not just on the stage, but in the boardrooms and offices to determine if we see ourselves and feel represented,” she said. “More and more, our artists are looking for a career that is not just on the stage.”

Dworkin said she believes the “needle is very much moving” toward diversity in the classical world — not just through representation and participation, but also in the conversations being held and the information being shared. She believes the greatest success story behind Sphinx Virtuosi and the larger Sphinx Organization is the creation of a large family, a community, a network of diverse musicians who “feel they belong together.”

“This is more than just a classical ensemble,” Dworkin said. “This is a movement.”

On Wednesday evening, Onstage Ogden offers folks in Northern Utah an opportunity to hear that movement.

WHAT: Sphinx Virtuosi

WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 11

WHERE: Peery’s Egyptian Theater, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden

TICKETS: $5-$10, onstageogden.org or 801-399-9214


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