This past weekend I attended the annual Sphinx conference in Detroit, Michigan: SphinxConnect 2020. This was my fifth year in a row attending “the epicenter for artists and leaders in diversity” and in the years since I first attended in 2016 I have seen it grow from a single continuous series of presentations for about 300 people, to nearly a thousand people (900 in 2019 and the crowd this year seems comparable) picking and choosing sessions from multiple tracks.
SphinxConnect grew out of the Sphinx Competition, a national competition for Black and Latinx classical string players founded by Aaron Dworkin in 1996. As the Sphinx Organization grew and developed programming beyond the competition, the mission to improve diversity or DEI (diversity, equity & inclusion as I have often heard it labelled) in classical music has grown immensely in every field in the arts and in the world.
There are many reasons that this is my favorite conference to attend, including the focus on a mission that I am passionate about and the many friends I have made who work in similar capacities for institutions from around the country and beyond that I can count on seeing there. But I think SphinxConnect’s greatest strength is in truth its diversity. The great beauty of this conference is that it truly is for everyone who works in the arts, and people from all capacities attend: instrumental musicians certainly: the conference focuses around the competition and there is a full orchestra of Black and Latinx players to perform the Honors concert for the Junior Division Honors Concert on Friday and the thrilling Senior Division Honors Concert that closes the conference on Saturday night.
But also hundreds of others attend: administrators; conductors; composers; funders; artist representatives; graduate, undergraduate, and high school students, parents, friends. Many institutions are represented: major music conservatories, music schools, universities and colleges; community music schools; dozens of symphony orchestras from across the country, large and small; many professional soloists and chamber groups. No other gathering of any kind, none of the others of the many conferences I have attended for professionals in performing arts and music education have anything near approaching the diversity of this conference.
Choral music has been a featured part of programming at at SphinxConnect for several years. Probably the strongest memory I have of choral music at Sphinx was the stunning performance of Joel Thompson’s The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed in 2017, at the closing Finals concert with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra and University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, conducted by Eugene Rogers, Director of Choral Activities for the University of Michigan. (He also currently serves on the board of Chorus America and as the national chair of Diversity Initiatives for ACDA.) The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed is a moving choral work originally scored for male chorus, string quintet and piano, then later scored for full orchestra for the premiere at SphinxConnect 2017. Seven movements represent the last words from seven lost lives – the lives of black men killed by police: Kenneth Chamberlain, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and Eric Garner. Using the text structure of the Joseph Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, each victim’s last words are set in a different musical style and Thompson incorporates the L’homme armé (The armed man) renaissance French secular tune throughout. The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed has been performed around the country now, and if you are involved in choral music and diversity in any way, you need to learn about and hear this piece.
This weekend I caught up with Eugene after a session, and he shared some thoughts about the conference, and about EXIGENCE vocal ensemble, which he conducts:
SphinxConnect is one of the best gatherings of Black and Latinx artists and leaders in the country. EXIGENCE, a Sphinx vocal ensemble, was founded in 2018 and gathers annually at the SphinxConnect conference. During the conference the ensemble rehearses and performs several concerts in the Detroit-metro area. This year we performed a concert at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Detroit (the Archdiocese of Michigan) and at the famed Kirk in Hills Church in West Bloomfield. Our “Vision Unfolding” concerts included an eclectic program of both classical and folk music with the SATB premiere of Joel Thompson’s powerful “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed”.
~ Eugene Rogers
After a stirring closing speech by Philadelphia Orchestra bassist Joseph Conyers, EXIGENCE took the stage for the traditional celebratory performance that ends the last session before the finals concert at SphinxConnect on Saturday night. And by the end of their rousing two song set the audience were all on their feet, clapping and singing along, unity in diversity.
©2020 Walter Bitner
Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as Director of Education & Community Engagement for the Richmond Symphony in Richmond, Virginia. His column Off The Podium is featured in Choral Director magazine, and he writes about music and education on his website Off The Podium at walterbitner.com.