The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State will present Sphinx Virtuosi, a self-conducting orchestra featuring 18 string-instrument soloists of African-American and Hispanic descent, on Sept. 29.
“Latin Voyages: Viajes Latinos,” the ensemble’s fall 2016 tour, takes audiences on a journey that includes zesty Argentine tango, nocturnal images of Mexico and a tribute to the great Brazilian composer Astor Piazzolla. The program invites listeners to explore the great palette of the string medium through the prism of celebrated and lesser-known composers. The music, which celebrates the intricate mosaic of sounds and colors of the diverse Latin heritage, includes works by Piazzolla, Alberto Williams, Javier Álvarez, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Cesar Espejo, Osvaldo Golijov and Alberto Ginastera.
Sphinx Virtuosi features Catalyst Quartet, which made its Penn State debut during the center’s 2015-16 season. The orchestra highlights the talents of prize-winning alumni of the internationally renowned Sphinx Competition. The annual contest is open to young black and Hispanic string musicians with the goal of encouraging the love of classical music in underserved communities.
The Sphinx Organization is led by President and Artistic Director Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, who aims to cultivate an appreciation of the arts among minorities through advocacy, opportunity and mentorship.
Born to mixed parentage in Moscow, Russia (Azeri and Jewish), Dworkin came to Detroit in the mid-’90s with her parents, and found herself at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. She met Spinx’s founder, her now-husband Aaron Dworkin, while at UM.
“As a biracial violinist, he had a sense that there was an acute lack of diversity in our world — having been the only one or one of less than a handful in most of his experience as a musician,” she said. “He had a dream to change that, and as a friend, I wanted to help.”
Several months later, Dworkin became the first student intern/employee for what became the Sphinx Organization. Soon after, Sphinx became her life’s work, as she made her way from programming to development, to eventually becoming executive director.
“When the founder transitioned to become Dean for University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the board elected me to succeed in my role as president,” she said. “It has been quite a journey and I look forward to each day.”
Preparing for each performance is a fulfilling process for the orchestra, and each year they think about a theme that may resonate with audiences, while also giving their artists an important outlet to express themselves.
“ ‘Viajes Latinos’ aims to illustrate how Latin composers have a remarkable tradition in classical medium, and how this music embraces our heritage, hopefully, making it something that feels authentic and relevant to our audiences,” Dworkin said. “The program is an artistic product, but so much more importantly, it is an avenue to make a social statement, to address the lack of representation, lack of equity and lack of awareness in traditional programming. Last year, for example, our program highlighted women composers and artists.”
While Dworkin leads the process, it is always informed by the expertise of so many others on Sphinx’s national advisory board, as well as the leadership of Sphinx Virtuosi, the Catalyst Quartet.
“Our artists care deeply about the way in which we present this music, how we relate it to our audiences, how we make it relevant to young people, as well as those who already frequent concert halls and are simply new to this repertoire,” she said. “Our concerts are always interactive, and there is a sense of a dialogue and personal engagement on behalf of the artists. The reciprocity that is built as part of the experience, we feel, is the future of our field and the key to making it thrive.”
Originally formed in 2004 as the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra, Sphinx Virtuosi gave its debut at Carnegie Hall. At once a bridge between minority communities and the classical music establishment, Sphinx Virtuosi continues to garner critical acclaim during its annual national tours to many of the leading venues around the country.
“As we looked at what would be most important in terms of evolving our efforts and providing further exposure, we felt that creating unprecedented performance and outreach opportunities would be essential not only to Sphinx’s overall mission but also, in terms of developing well-rounded ambassadors/musicians of today,” Dworkin said. “Sphinx Virtuosi became a natural vehicle through which we could create strong exposure, give a stage to channel the talent and share the incredible literature by composers of color which can otherwise seldom, if ever, be heard in our halls.”
IF YOU GO
- What: Sphinx Virtuosi
- When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29
- Where: Schwab Auditorium, University Park
- Info: www.cpa.psu.edu