When people ask Aaron Dworkin why he cares so much about bringing diversity to classical music, he answers, “I am basically a black, white, Jewish, Irish Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness who plays the violin. … I am the definition of diversity, and really had no choice but to do this work.”
Dworkin is spreading African-American and Latino diversity as the founder and president of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which focuses on youth development and diversity in performing and appreciating classical music.
Soundbytes: Catalyst Quartet at Harvard
The son of an unwed, white, Irish Catholic mother and an African-American Jehovah’s Witness, he was given up for adoption by his parents two weeks after his birth to a white Jewish couple from New York, both professors in neural and behavioral science with a love of music.
Inspired by his adoptive mother, an amateur violinist, Dworkin took up the instrument at age 5. Three years later, while attending a concert by the violin virtuoso Isaac Stern at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Dworkin said he was struck by the “sense of awe it built in me about music.” The feeling has remained with him ever since.
But along with his love of the art form came an understanding of its lack of diversity, and a desire to make that change, leading to the Sphinx Organization.
Dworkin was at Harvard on March 11 to receive the University’s Luise Vosgerchian Teaching Award, which honors a nationally recognized educator and is administered by the Office for the Arts at Harvard.
During a presentation in the Barker Center’s Thompson Room, Dworkin discussed some grim numbers, signifying what he called a “stark underrepresentation” of blacks and Hispanics in the nation’s classical music landscape.
Blacks and Latinos represent only 4 percent of members in the nation’s 1,200 orchestras, according to a survey conducted by the League of American Orchestras. But the problem runs much deeper than just the diversity of the stage performers, said Dworkin. The survey also found similar statistics among top administrative positions. Only about 4 percent of music directors or orchestra conductors are black or Latino. The numbers are worse for executive director and artistic administrator positions. “Statistically,” said Dworkin, “zero percent are black or Latino.”
Even education and community relations directors, those charged with connecting an orchestra to its surrounding community, are rarely men or women of color. In addition, repertoires reflect no black or Latino composers, and audiences are largely composed of older, white members.
But with Dworkin’s help, the tide is slowly shifting. His group includes the Sphinx Performance Academy, a full-scholarship, intensive chamber music and solo performance program designed for aspiring black and Latino string players; a professional development program that helps prepare young artists for a career in classical music; the annual Sphinx Competition, open to all junior high, high school, and college-age black and Latino string players in the nation; the Catalyst Quartet, composed of top laureates and alumni; and the Sphinx Symphony, an all-black and Latino orchestra made up of top professionals from around the country.
Dworkin said his group has played a significant role in doubling the number of black performers in the nation’s orchestras. When his organization was founded in 1998, only about 1.16 percent of orchestras were black. Today that number is up to 2.5 percent. According to Dworkin, every new African-American member of an orchestra since 1998 has some tie to the Sphinx Organization.
“We need to look at diversity as something that is critical to the evolution and survival of our field and our art form,” said Dworkin. “We have a great deal of distance to go; we are not yet done by any means.”
Quoting civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who met his wife while she was studying voice and violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Dworkin said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle. … Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Fittingly, the Catalyst Quartet closed the discussion with a performance of Terry Riley’s “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector.”