Sphinx Orchestra plays at Hill Auditorium for 25th anniversary

Music echoed through the halls of the Hill Auditorium on Sunday night as the University Musical Society hosted the Sphinx Orchestra – a Detroit-based organization aiming to include more black and Latino artists in classical music. The concert, organized as part of the orchestra’s 25th anniversary tour originally scheduled for January 2021, has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The concert opened with a commissioned work by Carlos Simon. The piece entitled “Motherboxx Connection” is part of Simon’s four-movement set Tales: A Folk Symphonyand was inspired by Afrofuturism, an artistic aesthetic focused on the intersection of African-American culture and science and technology.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, freshman engineering student Adhav Rajesh said he appreciated the variety of compositions performed at the concert. He said he particularly enjoyed a piece written by multiracial composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, best known for his work Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.

“I really liked (Coleridge-Taylor’s piece) and I think they mentioned that he was one of the first black composers to be shown widely,” Rajesh said. “It was a very powerful and emotional piece.”

The concert wanted to draw attention to classical compositions created by musicians of color. For the past 25 years, the Sphinx Organization has worked to promote diverse artists by facilitating industry connections and offering grants and grants.

Jane Cooper from Ann Arbor, who attended the event, told The Daily she was excited to see so many young black musicians play with the Sphinx Orchestra.

“We’ve seen the big orchestras come in with people in their 70s and older,” Cooper said. “These are all young people and this is as outstanding as other world orchestras out there.”

Jennifer Edwards, an Ann Arbor resident who attended the concert with Cooper, told The Daily that she also appreciated the variety of instruments in the ensemble.

“Sometimes when you see a symphony orchestra, you don’t see some of the instruments that we saw today,” Edwards said. “I haven’t seen a French horn in I don’t know how long. You have everything in it. They have a harp in there. I was really impressed.”

Before the concert, Roshanne Etezady, Assistant Professor of Composition at the School of Music, Theater and Dance, moderated a live panel discussion at the event featuring Afa Dworkin, President and Artistic Director of the organization Sphinx, conductor Eugene Rogers and composers Joel Thompson and Carlos Simon, who had both plays performed. Simon is an alum in music, theater and dance, while Rogers was the director of the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club in 2015 and is currently the director of university choirs.

Dworkin said the process of curating the music for this concert is special because the Sphinx Orchestra originated at the university when her husband Aaron P. Dworkin – a former dean at the university’s School of Music, Theater & Dance – was managing the organization as an imagined way to highlight the achievements of musicians of color when he was a student at the university in 1997.

“This particular program is very special to us because it just so happens to include a number of luminaries and composers who have such a deep connection to the University of Michigan,” said Afa Dworkin. “In many ways it is a homecoming and brings home all the powers that made Sphinx possible more than 26 years ago.”

During the panel, Rogers spoke about the evening’s pieces, which also featured EXIGENCE, a professional vocal ensemble that highlights artistry within the Black and Latino communities, alongside the Sphinx Orchestra.

Thompson spoke about the inspiration for his piece “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” which was sung by EXIGENCE and accompanied by instrumentalists from the Sphinx Orchestra. He said he used music composition as a vehicle to process his feelings and emotions, particularly after the 2014 grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case.

“Composition was a way for me to journal about my feelings, so essentially this play was a way for me to process the feelings after the judges’ decision,” Thompson said. “I saw a pictograph series by Shirin Barghi on Twitter and she paired a simple image of a pictograph, a lightbulb or a bird with the last words of an unarmed black man who was killed.”

During the panel, Rogers highlighted his role as professor of choral music. He said this profession leads him to think about how to encourage discourse and spread a variety of stories and perspectives through texts.

“There are so many different stories, and why should only certain stories be told,” Rogers said. “My goal is always to have many different perspectives of the human experience (in) this concert hall to encourage this critical discourse, yes among the audience but also among my students. I feel it is a missed opportunity as a conductor and professor not to… advocate for as many voices as possible.”

Etezady ended the panel by asking members how they see the role of art and the artist in today’s society. Dworkin said she sees the Sphinx Organization as a way to create a link between classical music and social justice.

“I think we see our role as a liaison, a catalyst, an instigator,” Dworkin said. “I think our ultimate goal is to ensure that this art form, which means so much to so many of us, reflects the communities it serves and can be relevant to the communities it serves. We believe the two are interdependent.”

Thompson said he sees art and music as the primary means through which he can express what he believes to be the truth.

“I think art is just an opportunity to tell the truth, to be as honest as possible, especially in a world where we’re always at odds about what’s true,” Thompson said. “I find it’s a space for me to be as honest as possible about myself, and then I hope that … people can either see clearly or see more fairly the identities (and) communities I represent.”

Daily Staff Reporter Joshua Nicholson can be reached at [email protected].

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