Sphinx Virtuosi orchestra performing at Krannert


There’s something distinctly different about the Sphinx Virtuosi orchestra group. As with professional orchestra groups, the musical talent is there. However, while many “Big Five” chamber and other professional orchestras may be comprised of mainly white musicians, the Sphinx Virtuosi doesn’t feature even one.

From the get-go, the Sphinx Virtuosi’s mission was to “present dynamic, uniquely diversity repertoire for audiences across the nation, at the highest level of artistic merit” for the good part of 18 years. And on Tuesday, when the Sphinx Virtuosi will play Foellinger stage at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts as part of their national tour, the all-black and Latino string orchestra will look to open the audience’s mind about diversity in the classical music world.

All of the Sphinx Virtuosi’s 18 members are alumni of the annual Sphinx competition which is held in Detroit every year. The nonprofit competition, which was started in 1996 by Aaron P. Dworkin, was formed for the sole purpose of encouraging and developing classical music talent in Black and Latino communities.

“When we set out to do this tour, the goal was really to reach communities that otherwise wouldn’t have this caliber of musicians coming in to perform,” said Andre Dowell, the orchestra’s director of programming. “We have a lot of outreach in the communities and really trying to inspire the youth to dream big and reach their goals through the realm of classical music.”

Today, it has since become something much bigger than a community outreach campaign. The Sphinx Virtuosi made its critically-acclaimed debut at Carnegie hall in 2004. The ensemble has only gained popularity since then.

“The ensemble has grown in terms of being more professional. A lot of musicians have gone out to take on some orchestra auditions and perform with a lot of great artists,” Dowell said.

Some of these artists and institutions include Celine Dion, Justin Timberlake, the New York Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra, among others. The Catalyst Quartet will be performing alongside and leading the Sphinx Virtuosi in a partnership that has seen great success in the past.

The Sphinx Virtuosi, since its inception back in 2004, has sold out venues like Carnegie Hall and has been featured in a number of TV show specials. The Sphinx Finals Concerts have been broadcast by stations like NPR and PBS, and the orchestra has also been featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary “Harmony of Strings.”

According to Dowell, it’s an institution that has been widely credited for raising the percentage of blacks and Latinos in orchestral music from 1.5 percent in its early days to the 4.5 percent that it currently is today.

“The numbers are similar in young orchestras and academia,” said Afa S. Dworkin, the Sphinx Organization’s Executive and Artistic Director. “Our programs serve as an avenue, platform through which to begin affecting change in this area.”

The Virtousi’s performance will feature works by African-American and Latino composers with some works by Mozart, Astor Piazzolla, Michael Abels, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and others.

“(Our goal is) to raise awareness about diversity and inclusion, to promote the notion of artistic excellence and commitment to fine music making while focusing on creativity, audience engagement and dynamic presentation of rarely performed works,” Dworkin said.

Eliseo can be reached at [email protected]