Afa S. Dworkin on the Sphinx Virtuosi and their UMS concert "This Is America"


Afa Dworkin and Sphinx Virtuosi

Afa S. Dworkin photo by Kevin Kennedy. Sphinx Virtuosi photo by Brian Hatton.

Classical music has had a long history of lacking diversity, which is why Aaron P. Dworkin founded the Sphinx Organization in 1997 to encourage and support minorities in this art form. The name was inspired by the iconic Great Sphinx of Giza statue in Egypt, which “reflects the power, wisdom and persistence that characterize Sphinx’s participants," according to the Detroit-based organization's website.

Today, the Sphinx Organization’s programs reach more than 100,000 artists and students, while performances by the orchestras and ensembles are viewed and attended by more than two million people each year.

UMS recorded a special performance by the Sphinx Virtuosi, an orchestra of the Sphinx Organization, for its 2021 season of virtual programming, and the concert is streaming for free on through February 8. The program is titled This Is America and includes works by Michael Abels, Jessie Montgomery, and Xavier Foley. On the final day of the stream, there will also be a special conversation with three Sphinx artists: Gabriel Cabezas, Bill Neri, and Melissa White. Each musician will discuss the performance as well as talk about their musical careers. You can download a PDF for the This Is America concert notes here.

A 2005 MacArthur Fellow, Aaron P. Dworkin was dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and is now a tenured professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship at SMTD who also hosts the weekly videocast Arts Engines; he currently serves as a strategic advisor for Sphinx. Afa S. Dworkin, his wife, is a celebrated violinist and educator who now leads the Sphinx Organization.

Afa S. Dworkin, who has been honored with the Kennedy Center’s Human Spirit Award and was named one of Detroit Crain’s 40 Under 40, has expanded Sphinx's outreach and range enormously during her tenure as president and artistic director.

I spoke to the Ann Arbor-based Afa S. Dworkin about the Sphinx Organization and the Virtuosi concert recorded for UMS.

Q: As president of the Sphinx Organization, what are your primary duties and do you have direct involvement with any of the performances? 
A: I have the honor to be involved in all areas. From artistic direction and strategy, which includes repertoire selection and curation, to working with certain presenters and venues. I also build lasting partnerships and opportunities.

Q: Sphinx is based in Detroit as well as founded there. Detroit is a city that has a predominantly African-American population. Did this influence the founder in any way when developing Sphinx? Have you found the location to be an easier or more available creative outlet for urban and inner-city students to develop their talents? 
A: Our founder, Aaron P. Dworkin, saw Detroit as our home headquarters due to a variety of reasons, some of which include the city’s unmatched cultural heritage. Our educational programming was born in Detroit out of need and relevance; our roots pay tribute to the past while also changing the face of the future. The Detroit community is our home community but our reach is global through our programming.

Q: The organization contains several music groups. For those unfamiliar, how would you describe Sphinx Virtuosi's performance style and what separates them from the other groups? 
A: It is one of the nation’s most dynamic orchestras. We think of them as an ensemble of soloists as they are self-conducted. They perform masterpieces from standard repertoire to new works with equal passion, excellence, and fervor. The group is like none other as it features the top talent in the country from communities of color, where the foremost priority is artistic merit.

Q: What inspires you the most about this group?
A: Their work ethic and commitment to high artistic standards, along with their creativity and ability to adapt what they deliver based on their audiences and that magic of reciprocity.

Q: What can viewers expect from the performance?
A: Our focus is on championing Black and brown composers, and as such, audiences can expect to hear the sounds of America, imagined by the various voices throughout history. More on the program may be found on the Sphinx Virtuosi page, with a write-up here

Q: With so much political and social unrest in our society as of late, do you find Sphinx to have an even greater responsibility to the community and classical music than when it first started? 
A: In some ways, Sphinx has always aspired to fulfill the responsibility to its communities and our society as a whole. Sphinx lives at the intersection of social justice and the arts. Now more than ever, we help empower citizen artists and leaders who have the capacity to unite people of all walks of life through their art as a vessel for expression, beauty, and human connection.

Q: Classical music education can be expensive for some, and especially for students in inner-city communities. Does Sphinx offer any financial assistance to help students?
A: All of Sphinx's programs are full scholarship, instruments are provided for our preparatory programs locally, and we also invest in artists careers directly through our various artist grant programs.

Q: The organization has several areas of programming that it offers. Can you tell us a bit more about these and the music education you teach?   
A: Our programs range from year-round and summer introductory educational programming to a national competition. We have three touring ensembles, summer intensives, and programs in arts leadership, entrepreneurship, and beyond, reaching 10,000 annually and 2 million in audiences. Specific information on these programs can be found at

Q: What do you envision for the organization five years from now?
A: I hope that the field will embrace Sphinx even further as a necessary major institution, which delivers meaningful impact and challenges the outdated “norm.” I envision us building stronger toward a place where Sphinx is an even bigger catalyst for changing the importance of inclusion in our field through its own work and the work of others.

Sean Copeland is a recording artist, music producer, writer, and AADL staff member.

"This Is America" can be streamed at for free through February 8.