According to Joseph Conyers, bassist and long-time member of The Sphinx Organization, “This is a social justice arts organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.”
And on Friday, Oct. 21, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society is presenting the Sphinx Virtuosi – 18 of the nation’s top Black and Latinx classical soloists.
The organization, begun in 1997 as a singular initiative for young Black and Latinx string players, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary at Carnegie Hall.
The Detroit-based organization is aimed at changing and fortifying classical music’s pipeline from elementary schools, through conservatories like The Juilliard School, and into high level administration.
What started as a competition for Black and Brown Latinx sting players all those years ago, now boasts 850 alumni, more than $10 million invested in Black and brown musicians through artist grants and scholarships, two million annual audiences, and three international touring ensembles.
Interestingly, one alumni is Conyers, bass of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who was the first Black musician hired to the orchestra in 36 years.
His life began in Savannah, Ga., where he first enjoyed the gospel the music at his church. “I would play hymns on the piano and sing in the church choir,” he remembers. “Then one day my mother heard classical music on the radio, fell in love with it, and wanted her children to learn to love it too.”
Conyers, his twin sister and older brother all began learning different instruments. “When I got into junior high school, I picked up the bass,” he says. “I enjoyed it but wondered where it could take me. With my family and teachers’ encouragement, I decided to apply to the Curtis Institute of Music my senior year of high school. I was accepted and the rest, as they say, is history!”
And a great deal of that history includes the Sphinx Organization. “I’ve been with them almost from the beginning,” Conyers volunteers, “and have quite a history with them. “I’ve been a juror at their competitions, received grant money, played in their very first Virtuosi concert at Carnegie Hall, and even received their highest honor, The Kings Medal of Honor.”
Conyers outlines some of the other highlights in his career. “I was named to the faculty of the Julliard in 2020, have served as adjunct faculty at Calvin College, Clark Atlanta University, and am currently at Temple University.
“Since 2015, I have acted as the director of the Philadelphia School District’s All City programs, which works with the top performing youth of Philadelphia.”
In addition to so many other titles, Conyers is also the founder of the non-profit music based program Project 440.
He says this project has similar goals to the ones established and fostered by Sphinx “We try to provide young musicians with the tools to help them use their passion for music to fuel their purpose in life.
“These organizations,” he concludes, “are meant to give musicians of color, who are in the classical field, a chance to play on classical stages. We strive to shine a spotlight on them and give them a platform in which to show their talent.”