As a music student at the University of Michigan, Andre Dowell – who would go on to earn a Master’s in Percussion Performance – didn’t see a lot of diversity in the college symphony. “Pretty much an all-white orchestra,” he recalls.
“I had about 10 people from the audience come and chase me down after the concert – they were people of color – saying ‘You are the first person of color I’ve seen onstage.’ And that meant a lot to me.”
It’s a sociological truth that sits at the heart of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, of which Andre Dowell is Chief of Artist Engagement. Founded in 1997, the nonprofit Sphinx supports, encourages and promotes diversity in the arts, through four core programming areas: Education & Access, Artist Development, Performing Artists and Arts Leadership.
Eighteen musicians strong, the Sphinx Virtuosi is a touring chamber orchestra, all strings, whose members are African American or Latinx. Each player is an alumni of the internationally renowned Sphinx Competition.
Sphinx Virtuosi is in performance tonight (Friday, Feb. 21) at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg. Ensemble members have been in St. Pete for several days, playing “mini-concerts” in schools, in medical centers, and (an especially joyous show) at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.
“We don’t want to just come into a community, go to the concert hall and leave,” Dowell explains. “It’s important for us to be in the community so that kids, who might not have the opportunity to experience classical music – or experience classical music and see themselves onstage because they see someone that looks like them – realize ‘hey, you can do this also, if you want to do it.’
“And it’s not the case with St. Petersburg, but some of the tickets to venues are cost-prohibitive, or travel is prohibitive for students to come to the concert. Or finding a babysitter might be prohibitive for parents.
“So we’re trying to reach people who might not otherwise have the opportunity.”
Virtuosi double bassist Xavier Foley was First Prize winner of the 2014 Sphinx Competition, at the age of 19. In 2018, he was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant.
The centerpiece of the ensemble’s program at the MFA is Foley’s composition “For Justice and Peace.” Commissioned by Sphinx, the New World Symphony and Carnegie Hall’s 125 Commissions Project, the ambitious, visceral work reviews the black experience in America, from slavery to civil rights to hope for the present and prayers for the future.
Also on the bill: “Source Code,” a string quartet by violinist Jessie Montgomery, Sphinx’s composer-in-residence. “She pays tribute to a specific period of American history, the Civil Rights era,” reports Dowell. “She re-interprets some of the great spirituals that she grew up listening to.”
The Washington Post says Montgomery’s works are “turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life.”
There are other works, by other composers (including John Williams and Astor Piazzolla) on the Friday program.
But it’s Foley’s “For Justice and Peace” that will inform the evening. That’s why Sphinx Virtuosi has named the entire tour after it.
“Every tour,” Dowell says, “we find a piece that really speaks to the ensemble, and is relevant to the times we’re living in. And we thought this was relevant for what we wanted to accomplish this year.”
Tickets and info here.