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Violin teacher Leslie DeShazor teaches her 2nd and 3rd graders during violin class at Maybury Elementary School.

Detroit-based organization has proud history of boosting the number of African American, Latino classical string musicians

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Joseph Conyers, assistant principal bass for the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra, was used to being just about the only black kid in the orchestra when he was a youngster in Savannah, Georgia.

So he was dazzled when he came to Detroit for the 2004 Sphinx Competition, which annually brings 18 young African-American and Latino string players up to age 30 to Orchestra Hall to compete for a top prize that’s now $50,000.

“When I got to Detroit, for the first time I was around other young African-American musicians who were as excited about classical music as I was,” Conyers said. Just 16 at the time, he felt like he’d stumbled into Oz.

Conyers laughed. “I was just so happy.”

Detroit’s Sphinx Organization, which works to expose youngsters to classical music and boost the number of African-American and Latino string players in professional orchestras and ensembles, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. From an undergraduate’s unlikely proposal in 1996, the program has grown into an engine of professional uplift that’s helped advance the careers of hundreds of alumni.

This year’s Sphinx Competition runs from Feb. 8-12 at Orchestra Hall, with performances open to the public Feb. 10 and Feb. 12. (See box.)

Since its 1996 founding by Aaron Dworkin, now dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan, the Detroit-based nonprofit has reached 100,000 students with its competition, programs and performances nationwide.

Today its operating budget is just short of $5 million a year.

Sphinx, now run by Dworkin’s life partner, Afa, has over the years awarded $2.5 million in music scholarships for aspiring musicians to attend top schools and summer intensives like Sphinx’s own Performance Academies.

For Danielle Belen, now a UM professor of violin, winning the 2008 Sphinx Competition when she was 24 opened more doors than the Californian could possibly imagine.

“It was a wild year,” Belen said. “Right off the bat I found myself soloing with all these orchestras — Cleveland, San Francisco, the Boston Pops. It really opened my eyes to my aptitude and potential.”

For Harlem Quartet member Melissa White, taking the top prize in 2001 for younger players led to coveted solo gigs with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and others too numerous for her to recall off the top of her head.

Even more impressive, she scored a private lesson with the late, great violinist Isaac Stern — one of the giants of 20th century classical music.

“That,” she said, “blew my mind.”

Winning a Sphinx Competition prize — or even just being a finalist — “puts you in a different league and a different mindset,” White said. “It’s just huge.”

The Sphinx reach is impressive.

“I admire, in the deepest and most reverential way, the work that Aaron began and Afa has continued,” said Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

At Carnegie Hall, where the Sphinx Virtuosi chamber orchestra performs every year, Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson applauds how Sphinx helped lodge the question of diversity in the larger discussion about classical music.

“We’ve always been great supporters and believers in their mission,” he said, “and have built a closer and closer relationship over the years.”

Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts in the nation’s capital, summarized what he likes about Sphinx in one short sentence: “It delivers on its promise.”

Sphinx was born when Aaron Dworkin was a UM undergraduate music student, distressed at the near-absence of African-American or Latino faces in almost any major orchestra. So he went to his dean, Paul Boylan, with a proposal to create a high-profile competition for rising talent.

“It was sort of self-serving,” Dworkin said with a laugh: “What if there was a competition for players like me?”

He ended up raising $80,000 for the inaugural competition at Hill Auditorium. Dworkin said he wrote everyone he could think of, sending out dozens of appeals. One of the recipients, James Wolfensohn — at the time the president of the World Bank — sent a check for $10,000.

Funding now comes from a range of foundations, including Kresge, Ford, Mellon, McGregor, DTE Energy, Mott and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, among others. Support also comes from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Sphinx, which began just as a competition, has grown into a multi-tiered operation. Their Overture violin program teaches 350 second- and third-graders in Detroit and Flint public schools, and gives the youngsters child-sized instruments they can keep.

“And when they outgrow them,” Afa Dworkin said, “we get them new instruments, to help minimize barriers and continue to foster that interest.”

The Sphinx Virtuosi, an 18-member ensemble of program alumni, not only performs in Carnegie Hall, but tours the country every year, bringing classical music to underserved communities where children may never have been exposed to it.

There’s a scholarship fund for academic programs and summer music camps, as well as one to connect needy, talented youngsters with expensive instruments they can call their own.

What’s key to remember about Sphinx, said UM’s Boylan, is that “it’s identified minority talent and helped direct them to leading training programs, and created a pool of qualified minority musicians who compete for some of the best positions in symphonies nationwide.”

Additionally, it’s generated a pool of alumni who now act as invaluable mentors to rising musicians. The annual SphinxConnect conference draws professionals from all over the country to what Detroit Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Anne Parsons called “a very cool networking opportunity.”

But the whole package strikes violinist White as cool: “It’s such a complete and well-run program. It’s kind of amazing when you take a step back and look at the whole picture.”

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Sphinx Competition concerts

Honors Concert (junior division finalists)

Noon Feb. 10

Tickets: Free

Finals Concert (senior division)

2 p.m. Feb. 12

Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets: $15 (general admission)

sphinxmusic.org

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