Founded by Aaron P. Dworkin, the Sphinx Organization is a Detroit-based national organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. (See the above summary video.) Cellist Yo-Yo Ma serves the group as Special Artistic Advisor. Over the past four years Sphinx has honored distinguished artists of color who demonstrate qualities of artistic excellence, outstanding work ethic, a spirit of determination, and great potential for leadership.
Yesterday Sphinx announced the three artists that will be recognized at the 5th annual awards ceremony. On March 16 each artist will be presented with a Sphinx Medal of Excellence and a $50,000 grant for career development. The 2016 recipients are, in alphabetical order of last name, soprano Julia Bullock, cellist Gabriel Cabezas, and pianist Lara Downes.
Last year Bullock won the Naumburg International Vocal Competition. By that time she had already made her debut with the San Francisco Symphony, appearing in subscription concert performances of the complete music from Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story at which she sang the vocal solo in “Somewhere.” Those performances were recorded and subsequently released by SFS Media about a year later and the resulting recording was nominated for a GRAMMY award in the Best Musical Theater Album category.
Cabezas has received a Career Grant from the Rachel Elizabeth Barton Foundation and was a winner of the 2014 Astral Artists National Auditions. He is a former student of Carter Brey at the Curtis Institute of Music. His concerto soloist appearances include performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He also performs chamber music with yMusic, a sextet based in New York.
Downes is the one artist of the three most likely to be familiar to readers of this site. She has built up a recorded repertoire that is both impressive and inventive. Her most recent release was a “singles” download of George Gershwin’s solo piano arrangement of his “Rhapsody in Blue.” However, in my home town of San Francisco, she is particularly well known for The Artist Sessions, an occasional series of events that provide (in her words) “close encounters between musicians and audiences.” Particularly memorable was the event in this series in which she invited pianist Anthony de Mare to discuss his Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano project and perform a “progress report” of nine of the compositions he had solicited from 36 composers. (The results of the entire project were released on ECM this past September.) Reporting on this event on my San Francisco site, I described Downes as “a knowledgeable conversationalist,” who “provided just the right framework in which de Mare could talk.”
Bullock, Cabezas, and Downes will receive their awards at the official Sphinx Medals of Excellence luncheon in Washington, DC on March 16, which will be followed in the evening by a black-tie private dinner.