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Cover Story

Mystery of the Sphinx

A tale of Bach, Mozart, Still and some kids who play their music.

Violinist Shelby Latin, 21, gets ready for a reception.
Cellist Ryan Murphy and his mom at Orchestra Hall.
Elena's award-winning Mozart performance.
Elena Urioste, 16, warms up before the juniors final.
Trevor Ochieng', waits his turn to compete
Elena, Trevor, and Amyr - laureates in the afterglow.
Violinist Amyr Joyner marking some fingerings.
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Published 2/26/2003

Wednesday, Feb. 12

The wide spotlighted stage of Ann Arbor’s Power Center, empty except for a grand piano, is the opening scene of a movie, an epic in sound and gesture to rivet our senses. Its 18 protagonists are young black and Latino musicians whose hopes will rise in a slow crescendo throughout the afternoon and during the week ahead. As we follow them, listening to the music they make and listening in on what they have to say, we enter a parallel universe of sensibilities born of a centuries-old European and now American tradition. But these interpreters of Haydn and Mendelssohn, Barber and Ravel have sometimes been considered unlikely carriers of the faith. The Sphinx competition aims to change that idea and its corollary, that minority players are really “suited” to jazz, various pop musics and little else.

Today, then, is a day of reckoning tempered with celebration. Without being introduced, a large man in a dark suit strolls out from the wings and sits before the immense keyboard. He watches as a young black man carrying a viola descends one of the aisles, makes his way to a short flight of stairs and gingerly climbs into the soft aura of the lights. Then a voice from the mostly empty seats announces the soloist’s name — Jason Amos from Southfield — and the selection that he’ll play, a sonata by Mozart.

With barely a pause, the imposing pianist launches into sprightly chords and 17-year-old Jason begins his odyssey through a piece that, as we start to realize what it takes to play such a work, seems almost scary. A few intonation problems crop up like tiny toadstools in a sumptuous lawn, but the young violist negotiates the emotionally sophisticated sonata with a sure hand.

Starting at 11 a.m., and every 20 minutes thereafter, a new player takes the stage. The first eight competitors, the junior semifinalists, range in age from 13 to 17 and hail from Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New York and Pennsylvania. A panel of five judges asks them to play works by Bach, Mozart and African-American contemporary William Grant Still. Through slow and quick movements, stormy or lilting, with or without accompaniment, the kids fill the late morning with their energy and, of course, their anticipation — because by 2:30 p.m., this group will get pared down to three laureates. Having survived an initial triage from 70 videotaped entries in December, they have roughly a quarter hour to impress the judges.

Most of the seats at the Power Center look down at the stage. This amphitheater effect allows the music to rise up, to the ears of the audience, and out past them into the rafters of an imaginary sky. Our young competitors, then, stand at the bottom of a canyon of sound, a spot that’s also the beginning of so many journeys like sets of tracks into the future. Their commitment and labors have brought them this far — now passion bordering on obsession will have to take over.

Violinist Vivian Crosby, 17, from Waynesville, Mo., starts out looking a little forlorn, but then rips right into a Bach sonata, riding its frightening demands like a pro. Moments later, her full tone on one of the Still songs explores its emotional depths.

Thirteen-year-old Trevor Ochieng’ from Wyandanch, N.Y., exudes a shyness that belies his talent. He seems to be looking inside himself the whole time on stage, checking an internal monitor for a cue. Biting his lip, he takes a deep breath and starts out with the Bach, wavering slightly. But then, his confidence growing audibly, he fills the Still pieces with fire and absolutely nails the technical complexity and lyricism of the Mozart for his finale. It’s an awesome comeback, a triumph worthy of your favorite B-ball squad or hockey club.

During such fine performances, it’s strange that the only applause comes from the judges when they’ve heard enough, when they want a musician to stop playing. Right in the middle of a cadenza or soulful melody, a pair of hands clapping just means, “Cool it.”

For casual listeners, it’s also a wonder that these young players’ adrenaline-soaked stage fright doesn’t overwhelm them. How can they focus, under pressure, on the different demands of the repertoire — from Bach’s baroque angularity, through Mozart’s bravura passion, to the spiritual profundities of Still? Maybe accomplished musicians feel something like what star athletes have often described — that they don’t see such key situations as packed with pressure, just as opportunities to shine, to do what they’ve always dreamed of doing.

When 16-year-old violinist Elena Urioste, of Mexican-Basque heritage from Philadelphia, takes the stage, she projects just this kind of confidence: Her posture, smile and intonation say, “This is what I’ve been waiting for, the chance to play this music with all of the charged intensity that’s been building inside me. Hear my Bach, my Mozart. Hear my sound.” And her Bach is mature and flowing, her Mozart commanding.

Bringing out the fuller possibilities of a work like the Bach sonata is one of the challenges facing these young soloists. Going from point A (merely learning a piece) to point M (making it start to sing out and beginning to unlock its multiple potentials) to point S and beyond (where a musical composition, once mastered, starts to take off into the sublime) is a daunting process. But Elena seems almost impatient to get on with it, this creative task that so relatively few have accomplished. In her short tryout recital, she shows that, for her, the singing has already begun.

When the judges come back, a lot of young players are holding their breaths. Aaron Dworkin — the man who created the Sphinx program — is on stage in the spotlight, his voice coming through the microphone as a calm point of reassurance, but what he is about to say will disappoint most of the kids and he knows it. There’s an award for best tone, “and the winner is … Jason Amos.” Everybody in the hall — judges, players, parents, support staff, reporters and photographers, video crews — applauds and cheers. And the three laureates are … Amyr Joyner, 17, from Atlanta, Trevor Ochieng’ and Elena Urioste — all violinists.

As people mill about hugging and chatting, cameras roll and shutters click, but Dworkin gathers together the five semifinalists who haven’t made the cut into a row of seats down front. He’s reinforcing Sphinx’s commitment to them: its goal of assisting them with master classes, chamber music workshops, seminars on instrument history and maintenance as well as career development is what distinguishes the competition. There’s no backstabbing or slinking away in defeat here, because Sphinx wants to do more than simply give out prizes. The organization’s main purpose is to increase the numbers of black and Latino musicians in the ranks of classical ensembles throughout the country. So every kid who enters the competition matters; every career is a thing to nurture.

After lunch, the senior semifinalists take their turns. The competition at this level seems a lot tougher. With all of the soloists in their early 20s, the field is pretty level and each player brings many years of sweat and experience to bear on a take-no-prisoners repertoire that’s as unforgiving as it is inspiring. By the time someone arrives at this level, he or she really knows the score, with a real now-or-never sense of the stakes. Disappointment here will be just that much harder to take.

The judges call out “Bach,” “Mozart,” “Haydn” and the names are a code tossed to the players — like royalty commanding a court musician to play:

“Play us some Bach.”

“Can we hear the allegro, please?”

“Now some Mozart.”

The hours fly by, but no one notices, because the music is lovely and excitement hangs in the air like a mist. And then it’s over and the judges go off to decide the results.

As stagehands set up for a Sphinx Symphony Orchestra rehearsal this evening, the senior semifinalists sit in the empty hall awaiting the verdicts. This loading in of chairs, music stands, the conductor’s podium — a long-familiar sight to them — must be a kind of comfort in their nervousness. They whisper back and forth as they count the seconds or slide into thoughtlessness. Some others out in the lobby are joking loudly, probably a few of the juniors, now beyond all tension.

Then Dworkin makes the announcements: “Victor de Almeida, 23, viola, from Baltimore”; “Bryan Hernandez-Luch, 25, violin, from Utah”; and “Ryan Murphy, 20, cello, from St. Louis.” The best tone award winner is Mariana Green, 24, violin, from Boston.

Elena

After the hubbub dies and the voices drift away like winter leaves, the huge Power Center lobby becomes a place where personal thoughts can be spoken. Elena, who earlier this afternoon advanced to one of Sphinx’s final rounds, remembers when she first wanted to play:

“Apparently when I was 2, I asked my parents, ‘Can I play the violin?’ because I think I saw it on ‘Sesame Street.’ I started bugging them and finally, at age 5, I got one of those tiny violins — I think it was 1/16 size — and then you work your way up. It started out as something on the side that I absolutely loved to do, but then it got more and more focused.

“At first, it hurt my fingers — it still does, like every morning when I’m all cold — you’re sticking a metal wire in your hand and it just takes a while for you to get through that. But I think it’s almost easier when you’re a little kid, ’cause it was fun. I only practiced 45 minutes or an hour a day. I started with the Suzuki program in school, but once I went to my private teachers they expected me to work on more challenging repertoire.”

For a young musician, the most famous names in the tradition, the ones that she might really be impatient to try, are also the steepest slopes to scale. Elena almost shivers as she recalls one of them:

“The Bach sonatas are one of the bibles of violin literature. I actually started playing Bach pretty young … at maybe 8 or so … but obviously on a much more introductory level, to just become acquainted with him, and he’s been with me since then.”

But she admits that the moments right before any performance are another kind of challenge:

“I love playing — I just hate waiting to do it. My pattern of nerves is that I’m pretty much fine until an hour before or whenever I’m put in the waiting room. Then on stage it depends what kind of mood I’m in — sometimes I’m really focused and everything’s channeled, like I’m almost anticipating what’s going to come out … that’s really cool. Other times I’m distracted — there are so many levels of concentration and so many different mind-sets — it all really depends on the occasion.

“I really love Romantic music. I used to hate — I’m going to get in trouble for this — playing Bach and hate playing Mozart. But now, especially for me, Bach is becoming so much more personal. But it’s still something that I have to work at more, just getting everything right and making sure I’m being true to that particular style and era. Romantic music just feels the most natural to me — you don’t have to hold back. Obviously you have to stay within the structure of a piece, but you can just let go.”

Elena, more than anything, wants to become a soloist — which is of course one of the truly difficult goals a musician can aspire to, sort of like a high school athlete thinking of a career in the NBA. She’s had five teachers since she started, and has been with CJ Chang in Philadelphia for the past three years. She keeps one of his central points constantly in mind:

“I have a problem separating my heart from my fingers, and CJ always says, ‘Be clinical. Turn the hot water off. Practice clinically, note by note.’ He totally cares about the heart, but in the practice room, I need to be clean and polished to build a foundation for it, before I can let go.

“I spend about 45 minutes to an hour just doing warm-up scales, arpeggios … then I work for hours. Before I came here, I was doing seven to eight hours a day, six days a week (Saturdays I have orchestra), just to fit in so much repertoire. It’s so tiring and takes so much mental energy. By the end of the day, I’m just pooped. And I definitely go in cycles. If I’m having a bad practice week, it’s just devastating, because I’m focusing everything on music right now.”

In her last year of high school, Elena has opted to be home-schooled. Her heavy practice schedule eventually made going to regular classes impossible, and she found it harder to keep her school friends and her music practice in two separate worlds.

Elena’s mom, Annette, is nothing like the steely Hollywood stereotype of a competitive backstage parent. Though she radiates care for her daughter, she seems to have nothing but compassion for the other kids and their families. She knows what they’re going through:

“It’s incredibly nerve-racking for me as a parent.”

Annette’s feelings are pretty universal, because her daughter’s chosen path is one that will endlessly expose her to risks and judgments. But Elena’s parents’ goal, when she was 5 and first started taking lessons, was to just let her be a kid. They didn’t quite realize what they were getting themselves into.

“When other kids would knock on the door and say, ‘Come out and play,’ she would say, ‘No, I’m practicing.’ And they would ask, ‘Why?’ and she would say, ‘Because I want to’ or ‘Because I have to.’ Then they would say, ‘Well, can’t you do it tomorrow?’ and her response would always be, ‘I’m going to be practicing tomorrow too.’ It was very difficult for her as a young child to juggle both worlds. She had a lot of friends at school, but they didn’t have a clue as to what she did and what was important to her. And she always sensed that she had one foot in each world. It was pretty clear to her, even at a very young age, that if she wanted to be a normal kid at school, that she needed to keep her music world separate. She didn’t want to be known as an oddity.

“This juggling act got harder and harder when middle school came along. And once we hit high school, it became nearly impossible. Because a large suburban high school with 3,200 students really doesn’t have the resources or time to deal with the special needs of one child. She’s been part of a pre-college conservatory program in Philadelphia — the music-prep division of Temple University; when Elena was 12, she went to audition there. That was a godsend, because it gave her a peer group of other young musicians who felt about music exactly as she does. It gave her orchestral opportunities, chamber music ensembles coached by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. So playing the violin was no longer a solitary thing.

“Her teachers have told her that you can’t even think about following this path unless it’s as necessary to you as breathing. And in her case I really believe that with all my heart.”

Two years ago, Elena’s parents took her on vacation for a week, but she didn’t bring her violin along.

“Every morning she would wake up and I’d find her fingering things on her arm. At the dinner table she’d always have her silverware in her hand as if she was bowing something.”

Thursday, Feb. 13

It’s just before noon and the Power Center is filling up with schoolkids. They’ve arrived in yellow buses from around the area to hear the junior division finals concert. And it’s hard to tell who’s more excited, the players’ parents or these teens and pre-teens who are about to see musicians their own age do the nearly unimaginable.

Under the stage in the greenroom, Amyr, Trevor and Elena are warming up their violins and revving up their sensibilities. They should be nervous, but it’s hard to tell because a lot of warm conversation passes between them. No sullen looks or “I want to be alone” moods. Instead, they offer supportive words and smiles. While the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra is tuning up on stage, no one can hear our young heroes out front, so it’s still OK for the three of them to run through cadenzas and parts of Mozart’s “Concerto No. 4 in D Major.” Since the finalists are all violinists, they’ll be competing with the same movement, the allegro, from the same piece.

Dorothy Jones-Davis, Sphinx’s finalist liaison, is with them, spreading her helpful, relaxed vibes all over the room. Then as Dworkin’s welcoming intro comes through on the greenroom monitor, Jones-Davis tells Amyr that it’s time to go up. The order of performances will be alphabetical, which puts Trevor next and Elena last.

In mere seconds, the audience is greeting Amyr warmly and the orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Kay George Roberts, starts to flow like a mellow mahogany Rolls-Royce. As Amyr begins his performance, Trevor and Elena listen intently. But after a while, the need to hold their instruments takes over. They want to warm up some more, but Jones-Davis, who has returned, says that the sound would leach up into the auditorium, though it would be fine if they played in the bathroom. So that’s where they go. With the door closed, they’ve got an inner sanctum cut off from the world and, at least symbolically, its troubles.

Soon Jones-Davis comes for Trevor, then brings back Amyr, who proceeds to kill time and tension by penciling in fingerings on a sheet of music. Elena is irrepressible, alternating between laughter and steady-eyed glances at the monitor. Then suddenly it’s her turn.

From the wings, Elena’s confident figure at center stage is striking. She springs into the Mozart with the same gumption she showed at the tryouts. A few of the orchestra pros not playing this piece are listening from backstage and commenting on her composure, her fire and soul. There’s a level of brilliance to her technique that lets her expose the heart of the music, the “it must be true” of Mozart’s conception. As she brings the allegro to a resounding close, a man backstage in a tuxedo holding a trumpet almost yells out, “She got it!” The audience is going wild.

While the judges ponder, Dworkin introduces the five other semifinalists to the crowd. Kids all over the hall are asking questions, via hand-held microphones, of conductor Roberts and other members of the orchestra. Then the decisions are in: Third place goes to Amyr; second place to Trevor and first to Elena. It’s only been an hour since this concert started, but so much has happened.

Friday, Feb. 14–Monday, Feb. 17

Rehearsals and master classes, dinners and receptions, chamber music and orchestral maneuvers — the next four days are taken up with enough activities to exhaust even ultra-motivated youngsters navigating such social, educational and artistic rapids with patience and grace.

But sometime during this long weekend, a young man changes his mind. After showing signs of stand-offishness earlier in the week, and when forced to forgo personal practice time in favor of required group activities, 23-year-old Brazilian-American violist Victor de Almeida decides to leave the competition, forfeiting at least $4,200 in scholarships and potential appearances as a Sphinx alumnus. Dworkin is visibly disappointed, this being the only such refusal during a finals week in Sphinx’s six-year history. He explains, “There were signs that Victor might have been more comfortable with the atmosphere of a more traditional competition, where everyone goes his or her own way. And due to that, he chose to leave. It’s definitely a sad turn of events for us.”

But there will still be three laureates in the senior finals. Victor’s spot is given to Best Tone Award Winner Mariana Green and, since the tryouts were so tightly contested in that division, everyone feels satisfied with this replacement.

Tuesday, Feb. 18 — Ryan

After an early-afternoon rehearsal with conductor Thomas Wilkins and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall, Ryan Murphy is running through Lalo’s cello prelude, one of the pieces he’ll play in the competition tomorrow. From his room on the 44th floor of the Marriott Renaissance Hotel, he has a spectacular view of Belle Isle, the river, the Canadian shore and snow-covered miles and miles of Detroit’s east side. After he stops playing, microtones of the music hang in the room and seem to echo the unearthly silence of the city from way up here.

Rehearsal and practice for a young musician are constant facts of life, like the sun coming up each morning and clouds drifting by. Ryan describes the process with a mixture of bemusement and respect:

“This morning we ran through everything — the Lalo and the Haydn — and then we went back and redid spots. Working with professionals like the DSO feels different. They come pretty much ready to go. Basically you sit down and run through a piece once and then you’ll go back to work on balance issues — if you’re not coming in well, if you’re not understanding what’s happening in the orchestra or if you want to go faster here. Each soloist will do a work their own way — there’s no real set approach — somebody might take their time here, somebody else might go faster. Most times the conductor will leave it up to the soloist. Thomas Wilkins gives us a lot of freedom. He doesn’t dictate what we need to do, but some conductors will insist that this be this way and that be that.”

Like Elena, Ryan was 5 years old when he first picked up his instrument. He had started on violin at the age of 3 or 4, because his mother teaches strings, then a year or so later made the switch to a mini version of the cello. Around fifth or sixth grade, he graduated to a full-sized instrument.

“But I was kind of a laid-back kid, so the cello wasn’t a really big part of my life for a while. It was just something I did because my parents wanted me to. And it was something that I enjoyed because I made a lot of friends who were musicians. We were 5 years old and would play in our little group class and then we’d go run around outside. It was just a lot of fun, and then I started getting more serious about it. The fun level went up as well when I started traveling and meeting a lot of really cool people. After a while, you start seeing those people again. A girl I hadn’t seen in maybe 10, 15 years … we started studying violin together at 3 or 4 … then I saw her again the summer before I went into my freshman year in college.”

Ryan’s experience seems so different from Elena’s in at least this one respect, the integration of his music with his childhood social life. One contributing factor would be the atmosphere he encountered in high school in St. Louis.

“I went to a public school with a really good orchestra program, with four different big string orchestras, and upwards of 40 or 50 string players in each — out of an enrollment of 2,000-plus kids. So music didn’t change my high school experience until senior year when I had to take auditions — and then I missed a lot of school. The teachers still expected me to hand my work in and treated me as a normal student, but were understanding of the fact that I would be gone for pretty much the whole month of March.”

Now studying at the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music, Ryan has traveled to Chicago, New York, California, Louisiana and Sweden to play. Though he loves the feel of chamber music and smaller ensembles, his real ambition is to land a chair in one of the principal American orchestras.

“I was in the youth orchestra in St. Louis and we had side-by-side rehearsals with the symphony, which was great. They basically double the size of the orchestra and you’ll have the first-chair cellist in the youth symphony sit with the first-chair cellist in the St. Louis Symphony, and it just goes on back like that through all the sections. So you’ve got this double orchestra on stage, half of it’s professional and half of it’s young players. It’s a really good experience because you’re playing good works and the pros have all this insightful stuff to say. They’ll just lean over and talk to you, crack jokes. Some of those guys are really funny.

“I also played the Bach ‘Chaconne’ before a Rostropovich concert, with three other student cellists and the whole St. Louis Symphony cello section. A lot of people are into pop stars and movie actors, but I’d meet someone from the St. Louis Symphony or they’d call me and leave a message and I wouldn’t erase it for days.”

Ryan, at 20, is an optimist about his future in music, but he also has a balancing business-realist side. His experience this week in Detroit seems to have reinforced both aspects.

“The Sphinx competition is the only one that I know of that’s set in a really supportive environment where the three finalists — you’d think that we’d be at each others’ throats all the time — but we get along fabulously. In other competitions, the players don’t necessarily hate each other, but they don’t interact like we do. Here you eat dinner together and do all the events together. It’s not just fly in, get your hotel room, practice, sit down and play, wait to see if you’re in the finals. If you make it, great; if you don’t, you go home. Here, as soon as the initial disappointment of not making it fades, the other players are there supporting the finalists.

“It also helps to see the Sphinx Symphony, because a lot of the members of that orchestra are just out of college, kind of in that in-between stage. Some of them are established, and it’s always interesting to hear how they got there. And it seems that their stories share certain aspects: They’re like, ‘I was playing with a Motown singer for three years before I got my job in St. Louis’ or ‘I was working as a secretary or an assistant before I got this job.’ But you try not to think about that too much or you get bogged down.”

Wednesday, Feb. 19

There’s a fullness in the air this last day of the competition. With only tonight’s senior finals concert remaining, everybody seems to be winding up and winding down at the same time. Our movie is heading into its last scenes, but there are many sequels to come as these players go forward with their careers.

Dress rehearsal for the senior laureates is at 10 a.m. In seats halfway back from the Orchestra Hall stage, Dworkin and Sphinx artistic director Afa Sadykhly are listening and watching intently as Mariana Green works on the Mozart concerto. As her violin sings the drawn-out melody that opens the second movement above the mass of the orchestra, maestro Wilkins walks down from the stage and up the center aisle a few paces to judge the ensemble sound. After a few adjustments to the dynamics, he leads the young woman into a spirited section and soon she’s off into cadenzas that make her seem like a water skier, only rather than being pulled behind, she’s cutting the waves out in front of the huge vessel of the DSO.

Ryan is next. He sets up shop next to the conductor’s platform and tries out the Lalo with total orchestral support. The piece is full of high drama and solo outpourings like operatic arias. The delicious sound of Ryan’s cello is like mulled wine, with strong overtones of tawny port and butterscotch.

Also seated in the almost empty hall is Ryan’s mom, Melanie. Although she hasn’t been here the whole nine days, she wasn’t going to miss this unique event in her son’s life:

“It would be wonderful if he won, but the most satisfying part is seeing him on stage here this morning in dress rehearsal — to see him play with the Detroit Symphony. This is the first time I’ve ever seen him actually perform with a professional group.

“Ryan’s been so fortunate to have a family of excellent musicians — I don’t mean his biological family — because he knows so many other children at his playing level and their parents are symphony musicians. They’re just one big happy family — he sees them as brothers and sisters.”

Later that evening, as Orchestra Hall fills up with a buzzing crowd, expectations are running high. This is the first year that the DSO has accompanied the senior finals and it seems like an idea that’s long past due. The large number of African-Americans, Latinos and young people in the audience tonight shouldn’t be the anomaly that it is. And the reasons for it are so tired and worn-out that it’s time they were set out at the curb.

Now one by one, in front of a hushed, rapt audience, the players are giving it their all. Mariana’s Mozart is stately, full-toned, even-tempered, though her Mendelssohn needs more technical edge to bring it over the top.

Ryan’s Haydn adagio is tender, introspective, almost breathless — his Lalo full of dramatic but sensitively played virtuoso passages. Slowly but surely, he makes the second piece his own, while bringing out its undeniable pathos. From the box seats above, the delicate hands of a small child can be seen conducting in time to the music. By the end, as Ryan’s bow begins to shred from the intensity, he’s the hardest-working man in the Lalo-cello business.

Then violinist Bryan Hernandez-Luch gives us a Mozart that’s assured, relaxed and full of délicatesse. His Mendelssohn is singing, fleet and brings out the dashing choreography in the notes. After each of these performances, the audience showers the players with love and appreciation. If it were up to them, everyone would win.

While the judges deliberate, Elena delivers a winner’s performance of the allegro from Mozart’s fourth concerto. And there’s only one word for her playing this evening: ravishing.

Then the DSO leaves the stage and Dworkin steps into the spotlight with the results: third place, Mariana; second place, Ryan; first place, Bryan. Orchestra Hall erupts with praise and the youngsters bask in it.

As the hall thins out, judge Sanford Allen sits down in a quiet corner to talk. As the New York Philharmonic’s first black musician, the violinist played under Leonard Bernstein and on such recordings as the legendary Mahler series by that superstar conductor. Allen’s appointment in 1962 created a stir in the national media, and his experience (he stayed with the orchestra until 1977) has made him acutely aware of the issues facing the Sphinx competitors. Asked whether race was an issue in his career, he chuckles bittersweetly: “What do you think?

“Race was an issue in 1962 and it is today. There are still preconceptions that have not been broken down, attitudes that people still live by. The continuing cutbacks in music education and support to the arts have also had an impact, and not a positive one.

“But something that strikes me about the Sphinx competition is the way a number of the kids who don’t win return in subsequent years … and we see that they’ve improved. There are huge pressures in this profession, but the kids are freewheeling enough that it seems to work out anyway.”

Now the young players are turning homeward to the next round of rehearsals, classes and recitals. Soon they’ll be back to interpreting baroque, classical, Romantic and 20th-century composers. And one day they’ll perform music that’s just now being written. What will it, and the world that spawns it, sound like?

 

For more information about the Sphinx Organization, see its Web site at www.sphinxmusic.org or call 313-336-9809.

Check out the inspiration behind the competition

What is the Sphinx?

George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail gtysh@metrotimes.com.

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