“She has no vanity about her,” said Victoria Robey, a member of the organization’s board. “She just wants to see Sphinx be the best it can be. And she’s fantastic at fund-raising. She doesn’t do it in an aggressive, transactional way; she does it in an organic way. Donors want to have the mission explained to them; they don’t just want to plop down their money and disappear. She builds with warm cohesiveness.”
Alexa Smith, an associate vice president at the Manhattan School of Music, said, of her fellow Sphinx LEAD alumni: “One of the things we have all agreed has been impactful has been having the community, having people all over the country, where we can lean on each other. It’s somehow not competitive. And that’s a cultural thing that comes from Afa.”
There have been debates, both within Sphinx and from outside, about the organization’s tactics. The Dworkins’ preference for quietly lobbying legacy institutions has struck some as old-fashioned in a culture dominated by call-outs fueled by social media. And although string players have always had a home at Sphinx, some in the field wish that there were more programs for other types of instrumentalists, too.
The violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery, who has been involved with Sphinx from its early years, said that she has observed the musical level and socioeconomic status of the average Sphinx Performance Academy student steadily rise. Is the program, in that case, truly opening doors for those who would otherwise lack opportunities?
And racial diversity in orchestras, dismal when Sphinx was founded, remains stubbornly low, though there are profound disagreements in the field about how to address the problem. Sphinx, true to its tradition of working within existing institutional bounds, has resisted calling for the elimination of the prevailing system of blind auditions, instead starting the National Alliance for Audition Support to offer financial assistance, coaching and other resources.
Both the pandemic pause on performances and the broad push for racial justice in 2020 brought Sphinx more attention and resources. The mood was celebratory at the Carnegie gala, which featured a spirited performance by Sphinx Virtuosi members and a precociously poised solo from the 14-year-old violinist Amaryn Olmeda, who won the competition’s junior division in 2021. Nine years ago, Aaron Dworkin had taken the Carnegie stage for a speech in which he sharply criticized the field’s stagnancy; but this year, brought on as the 25th-anniversary honoree, he offered an uplifting, optimistic slam poem.
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