It was a Monday afternoon in early March as students filed into Tracey Collins’ sun-filled music classroom at the FAIR School in downtown Minneapolis. Cardboard music notes stapled to the ceiling rotated ever so slightly. A turquoise drum kit sat gleaming in the corner.
Something was a little different, though. Four strangers holding string instruments were setting up on a small set of risers.
With little introduction, they launched into Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla’s “Fuga y Misterio,” a fast-tempo piece with scratchy sounds created by using bows below the instruments’ bridges.
FAIR was one of many schools that the quartet — all members of the Sphinx Virtuosi, a professional chamber music ensemble based in Detroit — visited while touring the country since February.
Making classical music seem cool to teenagers is no simple task. One of the 20 or so students sat with his arms crossed for most of the performance, but perked up when violinist Clayton Penrose-Whitmore revealed he had made beats for rapper Fetty Wap.
“What song was it?” the student asked. “I’ve got to listen to that.”
Educational outreach is a core part of the Sphinx musicians’ job descriptions. Made up of top young black and Latinx classical soloists, the group has served as a model for diversity. Founded in 1997 by Aaron Dworkin, a violinist and longtime educator at the University of Michigan, it has evolved from its beginnings as a young artists competition to a multifaceted organization.
By the time the quartet played the first movement from Schubert’s famous “Death and the Maiden” — a piece both eerie and dramatic — the FAIR School class was giving their full attention to the performers, who communicated with sharp eye contact and played with intensity, despite having performed the piece hundreds of times in rehearsal and in concert halls across the country.
From the final note of the piece, the students were bubbling with questions.
How do you start playing at the same time? How do you know how to use a bow, and, like, not poke someone’s eye out? How do you practice if you live in an apartment? How does the way you move your hand affect the way your instrument sounds?
The last question came from 16-year-old Robbie Scott, a junior at the FAIR School, who plays drums, clarinet and saxophone, but is enamored of the idea of taking up cello. She piped up regularly with detailed questions during the Q&A.
“The amount of talent was on another level for me — the speed, the ability to even move that fast. It’s amazing,” Scott said later.
For Sphinx violist Robert Alvarado Switala, seeing the curiosity on young musicians’ faces is one of the most rewarding parts of his job.
“When somebody’s in the audience who sees somebody that looks like them playing an instrument or doing something they think they could never do — that’s a powerful, powerful moment,” he said.
Before the bell rang, signaling the end of class, the quartet played a medley of Top 40 hits — Billie Eilish, Camila Cabello, Lizzo, and finishing with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.”
All 18 members of the Sphinx Virtuosi are under 35.
“When older orchestras come to do outreach, there’s kind of a disconnect, because they don’t want to do the outreach, and the kids don’t want to be there,” Penrose-Whitmore said. “But when you kind of relate to them and you’re like, ‘I was just like you, six years ago,’ it’s easier to help them think, ‘I can do this.’ ”
The Sphinx Virtuosi are no strangers to the Twin Cities, having performed here four times, including a March 1 performance at Ordway Concert Hall. The ensemble was also scheduled to perform with the Minnesota Orchestra in early April, but those concerts have been canceled.
“What’s so important for us is that everyone who comes to see us at some point throughout a season should be able to see someone like them excelling in this art form,” said Minnesota Opera president Ryan Taylor. He leads the Arts Partnership, a nonprofit collaboration by the opera, Ordway Center, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Schubert Club that co-presented last month’s concert at the Ordway.
Sometimes one powerful performance is all it takes to inspire an entire career.
“It’s been great helping kids to see that we were once where they are and that it’s possible for them to do whatever they want — be an engineer, a doctor, or a great musician,” said Sphinx cellist Caleb Vaughn-Jones.
Liv Martin (email@example.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.