LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Like many ensembles, the Sphinx Virtuosi would like to change the sounds of classical music. But the group also wants to change the genre's complexion.
"Nationally, less than 4 percent of American orchestras -- of which we have approximately 1,200 -- are black and Latino combined," says Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, executive and artistic director of the Sphinx Organization, which oversees the Sphinx Virtuosi and numerous other endeavors. "That number has grown since the inception of Sphinx, and in fact, the number of African-Americans in major U. S. orchestras has doubled.
"So there has been some amount of progress, but the progress has been marginal as compared to the time line and representation of population of major minority groups in the field."
The group was founded in 1997 by Afa's husband, Aaron Dworkin, a violinist who said he was always the only minority musician, or one of only a handful, in classes and performances as he pursued the violin.
Afa Dworkin says there are historic and cultural reasons for the lack of diversity in classical music performance and academia.
"Historically, certainly African-Americans were not included in the field, and the same goes for Latinos, so it's not part of the conventional culture, and historically our orchestras have been predominantly white," she says. "So we're working to overcome a much more complex set of circumstances."
The centerpiece of Sphinx is the annual Sphinx competition in Detroit, a contest for black and Latino string musicians, in a junior division for ages 18 and younger and a senior division for ages 18 to 26.
The Sphinx Virtuosi is a conductorless 18-member ensemble made up of competition veterans and winners, many of whom enjoy careers with orchestras or as soloists and chamber musicians. The group's annual tour always includes a stop at New York's Carnegie Hall and regular dates in Chicago and Miami.
The group's program, titled "Dialogue Between Two Eras," features music by baroque composers and 20th-century composers who were influenced by them. That includes Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was dubbed "the African Mahler" in some circles, and Argentine star Astor Piazolla, who was heavily influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach.
"The idea is to broaden the audience and entice them with new music, while also offering them gems that they've come to love," Dworkin says.
In addition to performing, the Sphinx Virtuosi participates in educational events with students from grade schools. "There really is a sense of magic when young people are able to make music for the first time," Dworkin says.