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.
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