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    Review: At the Philharmonic, a Taste of Holiday Bounty

    Stéphane Denève leads a program of extravagantly colorful French works, with the pianist Víkingur Ólafsson as the soloist in a Ravel concerto.Thanksgiving came a day early at the New York Philharmonic this year: the calories, the juicy fat, the whipped cream, the fun, the sense of endless bounty. The orchestra’s program at David Geffen Hall on Wednesday was an immersion in richness and in flashing, warming colors, and it left you like a good holiday dinner does: a little dazed, even happily drowsy, stumbling toward the subway truly full.Conducted by Stéphane Denève, the music director of the St. Louis Symphony, the concert was très French — down to the tender Rameau encore played by the pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, who made his Philharmonic debut as the soloist in Ravel’s Concerto in G. (The program repeats on Friday and Saturday.)At the center of that concerto is a time-suspending Adagio. But in Ólafsson’s performance, the dreaminess — the slight blur, the delicacy — bled into the two outer movements, too. Some pianists lean on the factory-machine regularity, the bright lucidity, of those parts to hammer home a contrast with the slow movement. But, as he also showed in a very different repertory at his Carnegie Hall debut in February, Ólafsson resists vivid contrasts.It’s not that his touch is diffuse; it’s as clean as marble. And it’s not that the tempos he and Denève chose for the framing movements were slower than normal. But the effect Ólafsson got throughout, of a kind of virtuosic reticence, could be described in the same words I used for his performance in February: a “silk of sound, inward-looking and wistful in both major and minor keys, in both andante and allegro.”“Céléphaïs” (2017), a nine-minute section from Guillaume Connesson’s symphonic poem inspired by the fantastical writings of H.P. Lovecraft, opened the concert with an extravagance that offers proof of the survival of the orchestrational panache of the French tradition: its lurid lushness and sly squiggles, brassy explosions and sensual strings.Connesson’s precursors in that tradition got a hearing after intermission. The audience even got a second helping: The big, sweet slice of cake that is the Suite No. 2 drawn from Albert Roussel’s 1930 ballet “Bacchus et Ariane” was followed by another slice, the Suite No. 2 from another mythological ballet of the early 20th century, Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé.”On paper this seemed like overindulgence; it kind of was, but who doesn’t like their potatoes two ways every now and again? And while there’s a familial similarity between these works, Roussel’s style is ever so slightly more angular, with an underlying feeling of logic distinct from Ravel’s billowy scene painting.The Philharmonic played well throughout, riding the many waves and swerves of intensity and pigment, from dewy dawns to mellow dusks. There were some particularly notable contributions to the potluck: Ryan Roberts, just a few years into his tenure as the orchestra’s English hornist but already a pillar of the ensemble, matched Ólafsson’s eloquent introspection in the Ravel concerto’s slow movement.The principal flute, Robert Langevin, unspooled his instrument’s classic glistening solo in “Daphnis et Chloé” with conversational ease. Cynthia Phelps, the principal viola, had a russet-color turn in the Roussel, and Roger Nye, unusually seated in the first bassoon chair for that work, played with honeyed serenity.Unlike at most Thanksgiving dinners, by the end the fullness didn’t feel like bloat. The clear, cool acoustics of the new Geffen Hall work against textures getting too heavy; they favor breezy sleekness, which is perfect for Denève, whose music-making exudes relaxation without losing forward motion. A couple of hours later, I would have been more than ready to eat — I mean hear — some more.New York PhilharmonicThis program repeats through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org. More

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    Sphinx Was Ahead of the Curve on Diversity in Classical Music

    It was the late 1990s, and Afa Sadykhly Dworkin saw a woman crying backstage at a concert hall in Michigan.Dworkin was there helping to run a competition for young artists started by the Sphinx Organization, a newly founded group devoted to fostering diversity in classical music. When she spied the woman in tears, she assumed that a bow or string had broken. But when she tried to help, the woman waved her off, saying that although her child had lost the competition, her tears were happy ones.“I’m crying because we thought my daughter was the best,” Dworkin recently recalled the woman telling her. “There’s no one who lives near us who plays at her level, so we came assuming we were going to win. And we didn’t win anything, but she has a family now. She has all these sisters and brothers now.”Sphinx, which turns 25 this year, has come a long way since that first competition. While the prize-awarding event remains at the core of its activities, the organization, which Dworkin now leads, has also started training programs and ensembles, and has pushed for more diverse repertory and orchestra rosters. It has promoted young soloists and arts administrators, and operates an ever-expanding annual conference. With a burst of new attention to phrases like diversity, equity and inclusion over the past two years, Sphinx’s steady, patient work has come to seem prescient.“They were raising the profile of the critical importance of diversity in orchestras before almost anybody was,” said Simon Woods, the chief executive of the League of American Orchestras. “And before the League. They were there before everybody.”But perhaps Sphinx’s most fundamental and meaningful achievement has been its simplest one, the part that crying mother caught onto: creating a community of people who had thought they were the only one of their kind, or close. Forming what those in the Sphinx network call “la familia.”From left, members of the Sphinx Virtuosi, Hannah White, Alex Gonzalez, Clayton Penrose-Whitmore and Thierry Delucas Neves, at Carnegie.Rafael Rios for The New York Times“It’s so much more than our life’s work,” Dworkin, 46, the organization’s president and artistic director, said in an interview in October, the morning after Sphinx’s 25th-anniversary gala concert at Carnegie Hall. “It’s a family. It’s a society.”When Sphinx started, Dworkin was an undergraduate violin student at the University of Michigan. Raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, she had come to the United States as a teenager, when her father feared that political shifts at home might not be friendly to mixed-heritage part-Jews.Her parents were well educated — her father a chemical engineer and her mother an academic — but music wasn’t on their radar as a career option. Dworkin begged to play an instrument, though, so at 7 she entered the Soviet Union’s tightly organized music education program, and chose the violin. It quickly became her passion.The move across the Atlantic was a shock; she spoke no English. But with the help of a devoted teacher, she began to piece the language together. Then Aaron Dworkin, a transfer student from Penn State, enrolled in her teacher’s studio at Michigan.“We started talking immediately,” she said. “He’d zeroed in on something more than his own fiddle playing. He was interested in repertoire.”The child of a white mother and Black father, Aaron had been adopted by a Jewish family and raised in New York City. He introduced Afa to Black composers like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Grant Still and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, and told her about the negative assumptions people had made about his artistry as almost always the only person of color in classical music settings. (After a decade as friends, then colleagues, they married in 2005.)Xavier Foley, a bassist and composer whose piece “An Ode to Our Times” was performed at the gala.Rafael Rios for The New York TimesAmaryn Olmeda, the winner of the Sphinx Competition’s junior division in 2021, rehearsed Carlos Simon’s solo “Between Worlds.”

    Rafael Rios for The New York Times“He had a problem with the world,” she said, “and he was going to do something about it.”What he had in mind was a competition — with the goal of discovering the musicians of color who were out there, and of building camaraderie among them. He was fearless about fund-raising and asking for assistance, and with the university as a partner and Afa working frenetically on the side of her violin teaching and playing, the inaugural Sphinx Competition took place in Ann Arbor in 1998.“It was never designed to be an affirmative action mechanism,” Aaron Dworkin said in an interview. “We told our jurors, ‘If you find no one rises to the right level, don’t give it.’ And there have been a couple of years of the competition in which we didn’t give certain awards.”The organization grew organically as issues presented themselves. “They have been really good at creating programs or initiatives where there is a gap,” said Blake-Anthony Johnson, the chief executive of the Chicago Sinfonietta and an alumnus of Sphinx LEAD, which is aimed at fostering arts administrators of color. “They have found all the crevices of nationwide issues, and tried to home in on them.”Some parents complained that their children had to play on cheap, borrowed instruments, so Sphinx organized higher-quality loans. Scholarships were arranged with prominent summer programs. Early on, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington offered performance opportunities for competition winners.Sphinx began to serve as something of a management firm, and also started a summer program of its own, the Sphinx Performance Academy; a large orchestra; a training structure for young children, Sphinx Overture; an elite touring chamber ensemble, now called the Sphinx Virtuosi; the annual conference, SphinxConnect; Sphinx LEAD; and a regranting program to support others’ projects, the Sphinx Venture Fund.Deborah Borda, the chief executive of the New York Philharmonic, said: “I’m very positive about Sphinx because they actually do something. Sphinx isn’t theoretical. They provide specific, effective programs.”What they have not ever wanted to do was create their own edifices. “One option would have been to start a kind of Sphinx Conservatory, but the vision was never separate but equal,” Afa Dworkin said. “It was how do we nurture, empower, lift up and create on-ramps within the existing structure. Aaron knew the talent was out there, so he wanted to find it, nurture it, give it a level playing field. He didn’t want a new Juilliard; he wanted Juilliard to look like New York.”In 2015, Aaron became the dean of the School of Music, Theater and Dance at the University of Michigan. It was a potentially uncomfortable moment for Sphinx: Finding a successor to an organization’s founder is always delicate, and in this case the most obvious candidate was the founder’s wife.“I have to give the board credit,” Afa said. “They didn’t just say, ‘Oh, you’ve always been around.’ They looked at other things out there, and took a six- or seven-month process to see if I was the right person.”She has remained in charge even though, two years after starting, Aaron stepped down as dean, saying in a statement it was “necessary for me to have the opportunity to focus more on my family.” (Afa said that his packed schedule at Michigan had been “taking a toll” on their two children.)“There are definitely things we disagree on,” she said of her husband. “Direction, choices. We have different aesthetics relative to music. I really love new music, and Aaron has an absolute dedication to the Romantic era. But he has given me plenty of space; I can’t think of one place where he overstepped.”The Sphinx Virtuosi at Carnegie. The group made its international debut in Brazil, and will perform next year in England.Rafael Rios for The New York TimesHer days in New York last month leading up to the Carnegie gala were a swirl of meetings, coffees and lunches with donors, alumni, staff, musicians and composers. Everyone had advice to give and receive, and logistical challenges to present to her. Most pressing, the Sphinx Virtuosi was then about to make its international debut in Brazil, and has also been planning events next year in England, as well as recording projects. She fielded everything with the calm humor and gentle decisiveness of a den mother.“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.“I think we owe them a lot,” said Woods, from the League of American Orchestras. “Not only for having a vision, but for plugging away at that vision year after year. For me what is really interesting is, it feels like their time has come. The work that they’ve been doing is now beginning to translate into meaningful change.”Even to the point where its leader can speculate — however hypothetically — about a world in which Sphinx would not be necessary.“On a practical level, is there enough talent today for that to be true, for Sphinx to become superfluous?” Afa Dworkin said. “Absolutely. Is our society and sector ready for it? No, not totally.”“I just think,” she added with a smile, “we have a little ways to go.” More

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    New York Philharmonic Was Once All-Male. Now, Women Outnumber Men.

    The New York Philharmonic, which was an all-male bastion for most of its 180 years of existence, currently has 45 women and 44 men.When the New York Philharmonic moved to Lincoln Center in 1962, its new hall had no women’s dressing rooms. That’s because there were no women in the orchestra.But this fall, as the Philharmonic opens its newly renovated home, David Geffen Hall, its players have returned not only to more equitable facilities backstage, but to a milestone onstage: For the first time in its 180-year history, the women in the Philharmonic outnumber the men, 45 to 44.“It’s a sea change,” said Cynthia Phelps, the principal viola, who joined the orchestra in 1992. “This has been a hard-won, long battle, and it continues to be.”The orchestra’s new female majority could prove fleeting — it currently has 16 player vacancies to fill, in part because auditions were put on hold during the pandemic — but it still represents a profound shift for an ensemble that had only five women at the beginning of the 1970s. That was the decade it began holding blind auditions, with musicians trying out by playing behind screens.The pipeline now teems with female candidates: At the Philharmonic, 10 of the 12 most recent hires have been women.“This certainly shows tremendous strides,” said Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive and a pioneer in the field of orchestral management. “Women are winning these positions fair and square.”“All we seek is equity,” she said, “because society is 50-50.”Women now make up roughly half of orchestra players nationwide, but they are still substantially outnumbered by men in most elite ensembles, including in Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.Jaap van Zweden conducting the women and men of the Philharmonic this month at the newly-renovated David Geffen Hall. Fadi KheirThe Philharmonic still falls short by several measures. Women hold only about a third of its leadership positions, including its principal positions and assistant or associate principals, which are the best-paid positions for players. The orchestra has never had a female music director. Some sections remain noticeably divided by gender: 27 of its 30 violinists are now women, for example, while the percussion section is made up entirely of men. There is still a glaring lack of Black and Latino members.Still, many artists hailed the new prevalence of women in the Philharmonic as a significant development. Symphony orchestras were long seen as the dominion of men. And turnover is generally extremely slow at leading ensembles like the Philharmonic, whose players are tenured and can remain in their posts for many years. Meaningful demographic change can take decades.“It’s more of a family now,” said Sherry Sylar, associate principal oboe, who joined the orchestra in 1984. “There are moms and pops both.”For much of its history, the Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, was closed off to women. At the time of its founding in 1842, women were not only discouraged from pursuing careers in music — it was rare for them to attend evening concerts unless they were with men. (In “Philharmonic: A History of New York’s Orchestra,” Howard Shanet wrote that during the 19th century, the ensemble’s public rehearsals on Friday afternoons were popular with “unaccompanied ladies who could venture forth by day with more propriety than they could by night.”)It was not until 1922 that the Philharmonic hired its first female member, Stephanie Goldner, a 26-year-old harpist from Vienna. She departed in 1932, and the orchestra became an all-male bastion again for decades.Then, in 1966, Orin O’Brien, a double bassist, was hired as the Philharmonic’s first female section player. Often described as the first woman to become a permanent member of the orchestra, she was at the vanguard of a pioneering group of female artists who opened doors for other women to join. The orchestra’s move toward blind auditions in the 1970s was seen as making the process fairer. By 1992, there were 29 women in the orchestra.Even as representation increased, however, female musicians often faced discrimination. Sexism was widespread in the industry (the maestro Zubin Mehta, who opined in 1970 that he still did not think women should be in orchestras because they “become men,” was named the orchestra’s music director six years later). Fewer women got the best-paid principal positions, and some who did found that they earned far less than their male counterparts. In 2019, the Boston Symphony settled a lawsuit in which the principal flutist of the orchestra said she was being paid less than a male colleague, the principal oboist.Judith LeClair became the first woman to take over a first chair at the Philharmonic when she joined as principal bassoon in 1981, at the age of 23. She described her early days in the orchestra, when she was one of 17 women, as lonely. She said she had to fight to be paid as much as her male colleagues, hiring a lawyer to help negotiate contracts. It took at least 20 years, she said, before she reached parity.Sheryl Staples, the orchestra’s principal associate concertmaster; Qianqian Li, its principal second violinist; and Lisa Eunsoo Kim, the associate principal second violinist, during a recent rehearsal. Calla Kessler for The New York Times“I did feel I was taken advantage of in the very beginning because I was a woman, and young and naïve,” she said. “It felt humiliating and demeaning.”Some male colleagues took to calling the women in the orchestra “the skirts.”“It minimized the role that we played in the orchestra,” said Sylar, the oboist. “It felt like you had to be better to gain the respect of the other musicians. It was just a constant struggle of always pushing myself to be better.”The nickname was not her only encounter with sexism. Shortly after she joined the orchestra, she recalled that Erich Leinsdorf, a frequent guest conductor, during a meeting in his dressing room, asked why she did not wear dresses during rehearsal (she preferred pants).“It just sort of floored me,” she said.It was not until 2018 that the Philharmonic changed its dress code to allow women to wear pants at its evening concerts. Before that they were required to wear floor-length black skirts or gowns.In recent years, as women have taken on more leadership roles in the orchestra, the climate has become more inclusive, several players said.“It’s so welcoming and warm and it feels just like a big family,” said Alison Fierst, who joined as associate principal flute in 2019, and had been moved by getting the chance to get to play alongside some of the pioneering women who had broken barriers in the orchestra.There are some outliers — the St. Louis Symphony, for example, has had a female majority for a decade — but men still outnumber women at most leading orchestras in the United States. Elsewhere, progress has been slower: The Vienna Philharmonic did not allow women to audition until 1997. It is now about 17 percent female.When the orchestra moved to Lincoln Center 60 years ago, it had no women in it. Now, it is majority female. Calla Kessler for The New York TimesThe lack of women in leadership roles in orchestras — the principal players in each section can earn much more than their colleagues — has also drawn criticism. The vast majority of principal positions still go to men, and the conducting field is overwhelmingly male: Only one of the 25 largest ensembles in the United States is led by a woman, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, whose new music director is Nathalie Stutzmann.Michelle Rofrano, a conductor who is a founder of Protestra, an orchestra and advocacy group focused on social justice, said that more needs to be done to ensure that women rise to leadership roles.“Diversity shouldn’t be just a box to check; it requires mentorship and support,” she said. “We’re missing out on perspectives and an array of people who bring their unique talent.”The Philharmonic has sought to play a role in promoting change, including by hiring more women as guest conductors in recent years and by commissioning works from 19 female composers to honor the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which barred states from denying women the right to vote (one of the works it commissioned, “Stride,” by Tania León, won the Pulitzer Prize). Some of its players have privately urged the Philharmonic’s leaders to select a woman to replace the orchestra’s outgoing music director, Jaap van Zweden, who is set to step down in 2024.After spending decades in an industry in which men have been so dominant, some Philharmonic members say they are still getting used to the sight of so many women onstage. This fall, as the orchestra celebrates its remodeled home and the Philharmonic makes history with its female majority, some feel that a new chapter has begun.Sylar said she was struck by the artistry of the women who have recently joined the ensemble.“I’m not saying I want this to be an all-women orchestra either,” she said. “It just nice to see that women are being recognized for their talent.” More