Rocking the symphony


By E. Tammy Kim

Photos by Tim Galloway for Al Jazeera America

Produced by Joanna Kao and Alex Newman

Edited by Alessandra Bastagli, Michael Bible, Tony Karon, Vaughn Wallace

Published on March 29, 2014

Detroit — An hour before his performance, the 14-year-old cellist Sterling Elliott looks almost too calm. Dressed in a signature purple shirt and striped tie, hands in his pockets, he walks the hallways backstage, joking around with a violinist friend. Earlier that morning, he had listened to hip-hop on candy-colored Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. "The day of a performance, it's too late to really practice," he says. "I just warm up and try to relax."

Elliott has deep brown skin and a round head of close-cropped hair. He hasn't yet hit his teenage growth spurt. This year, he's one of nine junior-division semifinalists in the 17th annual Sphinx Competition for strings. At Detroit's Orchestra Hall, in greenrooms marked "Boys" and "Girls," violins, violas, cellos and basses are tuned and subjected to intricate passages of Bach and Mendelssohn. A long-haired cellist from Texas, Santiago Cañón Valencia, takes a break to watch "My Name Is Earl" on his iPad. Mya Greene, a petite violist and math whiz from East Los Angeles, chats with a violinist in an animal-print dress.

In most respects, it's like any other musical tournament. But the Sphinx Competition is open only to young black and Latino string players of the highest caliber. Its mission is to groom stars and to change the look and culture of classical music. After a half-century of desegregation in performance, U.S. orchestras are still overwhelmingly white — though increasingly Asian. A mere 4 percent of orchestra members are either African-American or Latino.

Audio portrait: Maria Sanderson
Maria Sanderson, a 14-year-old violinist from Indiana, plays Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, by Johann Sebastian Bach at the 2014 Sphinx Competition.

Sphinx's motto, "Transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts," recalls the national conversation around multiculturalism in the 1990s, when the organization was founded. These days, with symphonies bleeding patrons and music-school graduates seeking worlds beyond the orchestral orthodoxy, diversity and desegregation are a lesser priority.

At 10:40 a.m., Elliott takes a deep breath. He enters stage right and introduces himself to a row of seven judges behind glowing laptop screens. Several young competitors and their nervous parents sit in the audience. Dannielle Weems-Elliott watches her son through the pop-out screen of a video camera. The hall is quiet: Applause is forbidden during the semifinals.

Dannielle, a slim, prudent woman, has colossal ambitions for her kids. "I bought Sterling's cello before he was even born," she says. "When I was pregnant, I met a woman who teaches young kids the cello. I told her, 'This one in my belly is going to be your student.'" Like his older siblings, Justine and Brendon, both violinists, Sterling picked up his instrument on the tail end of potty training and never stopped. Until Brendon left home for conservatory, they each practiced as much as five hours a day — Olympic athletes drilled by an exacting coach. With Mom on viola, they still gig as the Elliott Family Quartet.

The children grew up in the working-class, largely African-American town of Newport News, Va. Dannielle and her ex-husband, Garth Elliott, enforced a strictly "classical" identity in their home. They never wanted to be "stereotypical African-Americans," she says. "I hate to use the 'ghetto' word, but ghetto is out there. My oldest son showed his stereotypical ghetto classmates that being a violinist is cool. Not pop music, but Paganini. You don't have to do it the same way white people do. You can make it your own."

Audio portrait: Santiago Cañón Valencia
Santiago Cañón Valencia, an 18-year-old cellist based in Dallas, plays the Second Movement of the Sinfonia Concertante in E Minor, Op. 125, by Sergei Prokofiev during a cello masterclass at the 2014 Sphinx Competition.

Dannielle says the violin kept her out of trouble. In the Ohio elementary school where she held her first instrument, "I was the only African-American who played violin. This was unheard of. I would spend my whole weekend playing. It's all I would do."

A local teacher, Margery Henke, recognizing her talent and grit, gave Dannielle free lessons, helped her apply to summer music programs and college — she'd be the first graduate in her family — and even gave her a used car. Henke's signed portrait now hangs above the entrance to Dannielle's music room, alongside photographs of her mother and father.

"If it wasn't for her, I probably would have become a victim of teenage pregnancy. If it wasn't for playing violin, it would've been totally different. Because I went to summer festivals, I saw a different life and wanted it for myself."

With the decline in public arts funding since the 1980s, many poorer children have missed out on music in their schools. "Where we live, the strings programs are dying. Newport News is the only district in the area that has it," Dannielle says. Educators predict a resulting decline in classical-music listeners and concertgoers — already a white, graying lot — not to mention performers. Elite musicians do emerge from fourth-grade band, says Deryck Clarke, a French-horn player and teacher in New Jersey. "If you have a whole bunch of kids learning something, the statistics alone will produce a crop of superstars."

Since 1975, Venezuela's El Sistema program has funded classical-music education for 500,000 children. Its fruits are already visible on the world stage, in the likes of Gustavo Dudamel, maestro of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and bassist Edicson Ruiz in the Berlin Philharmonic. In Philadelphia, one of two dozen U.S. cities with an El Sistema-inspired organization, some 225 low-income, mostly African-American elementary- and middle-school students learn music every day after class. "For the parents, it's free after-school day care in the beginning, but once they start seeing their kids performing, they get excited. And once they see their kids' attention and focus going up, their perspective changes," says Stanford Thompson, trumpeter and founder of Play on Philly!

Audio portrait: Sterling Elliot
Sterling Elliott, 14, plays the Prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach's Cello Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012, at the 2014 Sphinx Competition.

But low-income households may see a life in the arts as unattainable, and "with African-Americans in classical music, there are so many variables and outside factors that affect someone pursuing a career," says Major Andres Scurlock, a member of the piano faculty at Juilliard and the Harlem School of the Arts. It takes an unusually determined, resourceful family to make it work. Instruments run into the tens of thousands of dollars, on top of lessons, youth symphony, summer programs, competitions, sheet music, recordings and transportation. The Elliotts — on Dannielle's limited income as a violin teacher and Garth's as a physician's assistant — have relied on accommodating teachers, fee waivers and prize money from competitions like Sphinx. Last fall, Elliott used a scholarship grant to buy his first full-sized cello: a recent German make priced at $10,000.

Onstage, Elliott begins with a confident down-bow. It's a familiar piece: the Prelude to the Sixth Cello Suite by Bach, a growling romp through D major. Like most of the composer's unaccompanied works, it's elegant yet perpetual, always unforgiving. Elliott's tone is steady, his body at ease. The intonation isn't perfect, but the music comes forth. He makes his pianissimos and fortes. He looks up from his fingerboard, showing emotion in his eyes and the tilt of his head.

The other players and parents watch closely from the audience. Music is a family affair, and the Elliotts are a known quantity at Sphinx. Last year, Sterling won second place in the junior division; before that, he was a semifinalist. His brother, Brendon, also competed three years in a row. Likewise, the Sanderson clan has now sent two violinists to Sphinx: It's the first time for 14-year-old Maria, but her brother John is a veteran.

Jerome Sanderson, whose son John and daughter Maria have played at Sphinx, looks at an old family-reunion photo. The clan plays music of all kinds. (Click to enlarge image)

Most of the junior-division players are in home school, giving them more time to practice and take lessons. Elliott attends public school. "I want them to have a somewhat normal life," Dannielle says. "For years, we [practiced] seven days a week. Then I got soft, and now it's six." She laughs. "My rule is you practice before homework. If there's any free time left, you can relax. People joke, especially the high-school orchestra teacher, that I'm not African-American — I'm Asian. I've been called a Tiger Mom, and I own it."

A judge claps to stop Elliott halfway through the Bach and cues the next piece. (Is that a good or bad sign?) The piano accompanist curves her fingers over the Steinway, launching Elliott into the passionate third movement of Édouard Lalo's Cello Concerto. That, too, is interrupted. The judges let him play just enough of his final piece: Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Song of the Black Swan," a fantasia of longing and rippling water.

Elliott thanks the judges, packs his cello backstage and finds his mom in the audience. They enjoy a moment's relief. With a few performers left to go, the recital hall feels tense, and the precocious musicians suddenly look their age. In less than two hours, the judges will choose three semifinalists to advance.

* * *

Until a few decades ago, every leading orchestra in the U.S. and Europe was 100 percent white and 100 percent male. This homogenity was natural for a group of "white men playing music by white men for white people," said Werner Resel, former chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic. The orchestra, founded in 1842, waited until 1997 to admit its first female player — and for years thereafter, harpists were the only women to make the cut. As for racial minorities, there is one Eurasian in the ensemble.

Left: Getty Images; Center: Alamy; Right: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
From left to right: American bassist Richard Davis (b. 1930), Afro-French composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-99), American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978). (Click to enlarge images)

Classical music may be European in origin, but its lineage is diverse. "Black people wrote classical music but couldn't get it recorded or performed," says William Zick, who runs the website Although Zick was reared on classical music, he didn't hear works by Afro-European or African-American composers until he was in his 30s. "I was really angry. And I felt cheated," he says, citing Afro-French composer Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-99), the "black Mozart," and Afro-Polish violinist George Bridgetower (1778-1860), to whom Beethoven originally dedicated his famous Kreutzer sonata.

For African-Americans, the meaning of this tradition has varied over time. "Between 1880 and 1950, in black households, (classical music) was a gateway. You were trying to learn something about the dominant culture. You were trying to prove yourself," says Terrance McKnight, a host at the New York City classical radio station WQXR.

"African-Americans aspired to be cultured, but in a very narrow way," says Ronald Crutcher, cellist and president of Wheaton College. "I can still remember people differentiating between jazz and what they felt to be 'good' music." Classical works by Florence Price and William Grant Still were influenced by jazz, but embodied the "racial uplift" of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement. Later, during the civil-rights era, the equation changed. Thanks to prodigious innovators like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, jazz gained acceptance as a "high art." And anti-colonial movements drew attention to "world music," triggering re-examination of classical — "white music."

Bassist Richard Davis, now 83 and a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has lived through these shifts. As a teenager, he became the principal bass player and sole African-American in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, then the farm team for the Chicago Symphony. While other musicians were "recruited right off the stage," Davis was ignored. In 1954, he left for New York, hoping to find a more receptive environment. He played under legendary maestros Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein and George Szell, and with Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Andrew Hill, Elvin Jones, Ahmad Jamal and Sun Ra. Jazz brought lasting fame to Davis, but he sometimes bristles at the designation. "I do resent it when people think I'm just a jazz player. I'm a musician. A lot of people think, 'You're black; you must play jazz.' But jazz and classical are one and the same. I don't separate the two."

In 1947, Bernstein penned a "New York Times" op-ed bemoaning the many barriers faced by "The Negro in Music." He observed that "not a single Negro Musician" was employed by a major symphony at the time, and that the African-American musician tended to opt for jazz, "the milieu in which he feels he can belong — i.e., be accepted." A year later, conductor Everett Lee of the interracial Cosmopolitan Little Symphony wrote a follow-up piece explaining that black classical musicians "had come to believe that there was 'no future' in achieving high standards of proficiency." Twenty years later, Bernstein's New York Philharmonic employed one African-American member, violinist Sanford Allen, and was sued for race discrimination by bassist Arthur Davis. In 1970, the orchestra instituted "blind auditions," but employs no full-time black players today.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, under pressure from women's groups and the civil-rights movement, most American orchestras began auditioning musicians behind a screen. Blind auditions have weakened the force of nepotism and benefited female and Asian players, whose numbers continue to rise. In a 2000 study of 11 U.S. orchestras, economists found that blind auditions were responsible for the increased hiring of women between 1970 and the mid-1990s and made it 50 percent more likely that a woman would advance to a final audition. Yet the process has had no discernible impact on African-American and Latino representation. Aaron Dworkin, founder and president of Sphinx, has called for a new, multifactor hiring process resembling affirmative action in college admissions.

Audio portrait: Mya Greene
Mya Greene, a 17-year-old violist from California, plays the Fantasie for Viola and Orchestra by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Op. 94, at the 2014 Sphinx Competition.

These statistics don't intimidate Elliott, who — besides being young and good-natured — hopes to change perceptions through a virtuosic solo career. "When most people think about classical musicians, they don't really envision blacks or Latinos," he says. "But if you think about hip-hop or pop, you can name a black or Latino artist quite easily off the top of your head. It's just not common to see us playing a classical instrument."

His sister, Justine, who'll enter a college music school this fall, sees practice hours as an equalizer. "People don't really expect us to be as good, so we have to work harder to show people this is something we can do," she says. "In the regional orchestra, my stand partner was Asian, and I was one of the only black people at the front. I've gotten questions like 'Do you think people will accept you in the classical world when your hair is natural?' My answer is, I'm going to work just as hard as anyone else, and I'm going to look the way I want to look."

Their brother, Brendon, a lanky young man with a penchant for high-tops and fantasy novels, is a sophomore at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia. Curtis is a top, free-tuition conservatory of about 170 musicians, composers and conductors. Brendon counts himself among "four or so" African-Americans. A Curtis spokeswoman confirms that there are 3 black students, out of 168 total, enrolled this school year. The same was true a decade ago and in the 1980s, according to Curtis alumni, and is typical of music schools and "precollege" programs across the country. (Representatives of Juilliard did not respond to requests for demographic data; the New England Conservatory declined to release this information.)

"By the time you leave a conservatory, you are thought or expected to be audition-ready for a professional job," says Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras. But conservatory "numbers are so small that you don't have a large number of African-American and Latino musicians auditioning." According to survey data from the League, in the early 1990s, blacks and Latinos made up 1.6 and 1.5 percent of symphony members, respectively; today, both groups have surpassed 2 percent. The figures for conductors are considerably better; for orchestra CEOs, considerably worse.

At a relative's house in Detroit, Maria Sanderson practices her violin before the junior-division semifinals of the 2014 Sphinx Competition. (Click to enlarge image)

These are all moving parts, and partial explanations: the hiring process, training pipeline, income and early education. But African-American and Latino musicians are also opting out of traditional jobs in classical music. Full-time orchestra positions are hard to come by, and those that do open up attract hundreds of applicants, making the acceptance rate about 0.5 percent. (This explains the phrase "I won an audition!") And while established symphonies and chamber ensembles are still the standard-bearers of classical music, styles and venues are more open-ended than ever before. "New music in jazz and new music in classical are very close together," says Alvin Singleton, 73, an avant-garde composer influenced by Gustav Mahler, Ornette Coleman and Prince. Playing in an orchestra, he says, "is so regimented. It's like you work for the post office."

More conservatory graduates are in genre-bending careers, playing classical gigs alongside R&B, indie rock and pop. Within the classical world, newer ensembles — such as Imani Winds, Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, Soulful Symphony, Chicago Sinfonietta, Ritz Chamber Players and Harlem Chamber Players — are forging their own traditions. Philadelphia-based Black Pearl, led by maestro Jeri Johnson, plays concerts heavy on compositions by women and people of color — and not only during African-American History Month. "Diversity for us wasn't just a mission. It's a business strategy," she says.

* * *

The last junior-division contestant takes her bow, leaving the judges to their deliberations. Parents and players file out of the dark recital hall. In the lobby, through glass doors facing Woodward Avenue, they look out on a bright curtain of snow.

After a too-long wait of small talk and nerves, they are summoned back to the theater. Each player receives polite applause, congratulations and a rectangular trophy from Aaron Dworkin, founder and president of Sphinx. Then the hard part begins. The runner-up "achievement award" goes to Tristan Flores, a violinist from Massachusetts. The three finalists are called in no particular order: Mira Williams on viola, Hannah White on violin and Sterling Elliott on cello. Everyone else tries to put on a brave face, though tears are shed.

Williams, White and Elliott stay on their toes. In less than 24 hours, they'll compete in the finals concert, performing one by one with the resident Sphinx Symphony. They shuttle between their practice rooms (read: hotel rooms) and Orchestra Hall for rehearsal. Their dedicated parents keep time, iron their clothes and try not to hover. In a frantic, last-minute show of love, Williams' mom takes a taxi to Payless — her daughter needs the right shoes to match her dress.

The next day, the concert hall fills with parents, Sphinx competitors and music students from local elementary schools. Almost everyone onstage and in the audience is black or Latino, a rare sight in classical music. It's a special feeling, says Aja Burrell Wood, an ethnomusicologist from Detroit. "There are very few places where you can be affirmed as a classical musician of a certain caliber and a black person at the same time, in the same place."

Slideshow: Sterling Elliot's final-round performance

  • Elliott onstage with the Sphinx Symphony at the 2014 junior-division finals concert. (Click to enlarge image)
  • Dannielle Weems-Elliott (left) watches her son, Sterling, perform. She entrusts videotaping duties to her friend, Tanika Gonzales. (Click to enlarge image)
  • Elliott onstage during the awards presentation. (Click to enlarge image)
  • After winning first place, Elliott autographs programs. (Click to enlarge image)
  • Sterling Elliott closes his eyes while playing Édouard Lalo's Concerto for Cello. (Click to enlarge image)

The seven judges take their seats. White is first on the program, then Williams, then Elliott. As each soloist joins the orchestra onstage — the girls in fancy gowns, the boy in a tuxedo — they look deceptively mature. The repertoire is romantic in style and emotionally demanding. White plays the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with its pleading, melismatic entrance in E minor. On viola, the husky stepchild of strings, Williams draws out the pastels of J.N. Hummel's Fantasie. And Elliott breathes fire into Lalo's Cello Concerto, shaded ominous to airy.

The judges exit to make their decision. Parents and supporters crumple their sweaty programs, mumbling predictions of who might win. Dannielle sits quietly with friends of the family, her son's cheer squad. The conductor of the Sphinx Symphony grabs a cordless mike and walks into the audience, taking questions from young students. One girl asks about the maestro's job: "How do the instrument players know what you're saying?"

When the judges return with their results, Williams, White and Elliott stand in that order, tallest to shortest. Sphinx's artistic director, Afa Dworkin, presides over the awards: White in third place, Williams in second. Elliott wins first place and a $10,000 prize.

The judges come up to shake their hands, the crowd cheers and the schoolchildren pound their feet. A few ask Elliott for his autograph and pose for pictures.

Dannielle takes her time approaching the stage. "I can't believe it," she says, getting teary. "You don't know how long I've waited for my child to win the Sphinx competition!" A previous winner's dad congratulates her and outlines all the opportunities to come: prestigious summer programs, scholarships and the chance to play Carnegie Hall. It's her victory, too.

Elliott smiles with his cheeks and chin and more teeth than usual. A gracious winner, he thanks fans without indulging their praise. In two days, he'll play the Lalo Concerto again, this time in the main orchestra hall, with the senior-division finalists. At his young age, he's becoming a role model for his instrument and community. "You don't see many black or Latino classical musicians because they're not in the right environment for that," he says. "Some of them don't get the right opportunities they need. Some of their schools don't have orchestras, and that contributes to it."

"I feel honored to be representing blacks and Latinos. Where I'm from, not many people get to make it to where I am — and I get to show that it's possible."

Wearing his cello case, Sterling Elliott leaves Detroit's Orchestra Hall. (Click to enlarge image)