Downtown students treated to career talk and performance
As part of their latest program titled For Justice and Peace, members of the Sphinx Virtuosi chamber orchestra led a masterclass for a group 21 student musicians at The FAIR School in downtown Minneapolis Monday. Based in Detroit, this classical ensemble consists of 18 top Black and Latinx chamber soloists from around the nation. Fresh off performances in St. Paul over the weekend, the group partnered with Hennepin Theatre Trust to bring their music and mission of “transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts” to Spotlight Education students at FAIR.
Students listened intently as the group performed selections of several pieces, including one from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” and a “Pop Mashup” that combined tunes from popular music. Students threw their hands up, competing to be the first to point out which tunes were in the mashup — songs that included Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish and more. “The programming is always very adventurous, always very diverse, if you compare it to most classical ensembles,” said Sphinx celloist Caleb Vaughn-Jones. “We get to play repertoire that we probably never would play [otherwise]. We get to play repertoire by some of our peers in the ensemble. It’s a great way to connect to younger audiences, and get new audiences involved, because it’s relevant,” such as with pieces like “Pop Mashup,” where Vaughn-Jones noted, “Every year we do that [piece], because it helps us connect with the kids, and I love that.”
In addition to programs focused on arts leadership, performing artists, and artist development, Sphinx education and access programming brings classical music to historically underrepresented communities. Vaughn-Jones shared that the group engages with students and schools “several times a week when we’re on tour. I think for me, it’s great, because you can see kids that sometimes may have never heard a cello or violin up close. They’re like, ‘Woah, I didn’t even know that was possible, or somebody that looks like me can do that.’ That’s amazing, to open them up to the possibilities of music outside of the top 20 on the radio.”
Following the performance, students engaged in a Q&A with the musicians. Several students were fascinated by how the quartet was able to start each piece together and all be in the same tempo right from the top, inquiring how they accomplished that. Violinist Clayton Penrose and viola player Robert Switala shared that there is “some acting” involved in being a member of a quartet, and they must “practice learning how to read cues from each other.” Other questions ranged from the practical, such as “Do you have to practice turning the pages?” and “How do you know how to use a bow and not poke someone’s eye out?” to broader inquiries such as, “When did you decide on music as a career?” and “As a junior, and a percussionist, is it too late for me to learn a string instrument?” With the latter, Switala gave an example of a colleague who started on upright base as junior in high school and is now a professional in the field. Other members noted that learning a stringed instrument is difficult and requires a lot of practice, but that learning more than one instrument is important, as it allows a musician the ability “to do different types of work as a result,” providing more opportunities for employment.
After arriving in the U.S. from Venezuela four years ago, violinist Allison Lovera connected with Sphinx. “I participated in the Sphinx competition two years ago. I love playing solo, but I have more passion playing in an ensemble,” she said. “For me, [being in this ensemble] has been one of the highlights of the past year. Sphinx is like a really big family — a la familia, like we call it. They definitely support all their musicians to go out there and have successful careers. Being a part of this ensemble is a very big step, to interact with other great musicians of color. You learn so much from them. You have your own voice in the ensemble. It’s amazing.”
Vaughn-Jones agreed, emphasizing the importance of “having a community of people that come from similar backgrounds and are able to sympathize, empathize with some of the struggles and challenges that we’ve overcome socially, economically, all of those things.”