Archduke of the Arco
The violin is his instrument — for creative expression, personal escape and orchestrating social change — and he’s a pro. But, to truly understand the depth of Aaron Dworkin’s love affair with classical music and his connection to the art form, you have to peel back the layers of the maestro himself.
Dworkin, an accomplished electric and acoustic violinist, describes himself as a “black, white, Jewish, Irish Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness.” The 40-year-old, who lives in Ypsilanti, was adopted as an infant by Barry and Susan Dworkin of New York City; both Jewish neuroscience professors, Susan has since passed away.
“I grew up Jewish and it’s a very important part of me,” says Dworkin, who currently doesn’t practice any particular religion. “Nine years ago, I was reunited with my birth parents. (He’s still in regular contact with them.) I found out my mother is a white, Irish Catholic, and my father is a black Jehovah’s Witness. I certainly don’t fit into any box, and I never have.”
Religion aside, Dworkin is a man of many other things: a husband (his wife, Afa Dworkin, has a Muslim mother and a Jewish father); a father to sons Noah, 11, and Amani, 3 (the family regularly takes advantage of events at the JCC in Ann Arbor); and founder and president of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, the leading national arts group focused on youth development and diversity in classical music. His programs have fostered the musical development of tens of thousands of African American and Latino students (both of his young sons also play the violin).
Because minority musicians are grossly underrepresented in orchestras across the country, Dworkin knows the mountain he’s climbing is steep. “Today, about 4 percent of orchestra members across the country are both black and Latino combined,” Dworkin says. “About five years ago, the Chicago Philharmonic hired its first African American musician in history. The New York Philharmonic has none.”
Named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow (nicknamed the Genius Award), a member of the Obama National Arts Policy Committee and President Obama’s first nominee to the National Council on the Arts, Dworkin has received countless honors from a multitude of organizations.
He earned both a bachelor’s degree in music and master’s of music in violin performance at the University of Michigan and also studied at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy. He’s been featured in national publications and broadcasts, shared his story as a keynote speaker and lecturer and served on the board of numerous prestigious organizations. But if you go back to the earliest pages in the score of his life, Aaron Dworkin was simply the kid who didn’t fit in.
When he was 10, Dworkin’s family moved to a small town in Pennsylvania. That only amplified young Aaron’s feelings of isolation.
“I was a young kid with a huge Afro; I was black, yet I had an older brother who was white. I played the violin — pretty much all of the core tools necessary for middle-schoolers and high-schoolers to torture a fellow classmate,” he says. “Music was my therapy.”
Dworkin first picked up a violin at age 5 after he heard his adoptive mother, an amateur violinist, playing classical music. He instantly loved it; he was hooked.
“The violin has been part of my life since before I could read so it’s always been a core part of me,” Dworkin reflects. “I always had the ability to communicate through the violin. It’s been my solace and the biggest constant in my life.”
Yearning to share that experience with young people like himself in underserved communities, and tired of looking up on stage at orchestral performances to find few, if any, musicians who resembled him, Dworkin founded the Sphinx Organization in 1996. It is named for the mythical creature with a lion’s body and a human head.
More than $150,000 in prizes and scholarships are awarded annually through the Sphinx Competition. Other programs, which reach more than 35,000 young people each year, include a Sphinx Orchestra (you’ll find video of some of the group’s performances on YouTube), a summer camp, preparatory music institute and performance academy.
And, if you think classical music is inherently “uncool” and wouldn’t be of interest to students, Dworkin points out that superstars like Lady Gaga are classically trained.
“When we strip away the veneer of classical music and the trappings that sometimes accompany it, we find young people absolutely love it, “he says. “Any barriers are man-made barriers; there are certainly no artistic barriers between classical music and young people.”
As you might expect, Dworkin is troubled by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra strike that has dragged on for months. It’s the longest labor dispute in the symphony’s history. At press time, DSO musicians had rejected a contract that management was calling its “final offer.” With the two sides locked in a battle over salary cuts and other financial issues, the rest of the DSO season was “suspended.” No new contract talks were scheduled.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate,” Dworkin said. “Detroit really thrives and benefits from having one of the top orchestras in the country here. All orchestras are facing great challenges; the nonprofit sector has been significantly affected by the downturn in the economy. But at times when communities are hardest hit, our ability to express ourselves to one another is critically important. No one seeks a community that’s devoid of the arts.”
“All I sought was acceptance,
Any clique’s shell I could not crack.
They feared the anomaly, too bad for me,
That I got good grades, couldn’t play spades ’cause;
They said I wasn’t really Black.”
The above passage is an excerpt from one of Dworkin’s provocative poems titled, “They Said I Wasn’t Really Black.” His personal performance art includes classical music, photography, sketches and the spoken word. On Sunday, March 6, he’ll be performing this and other selections as part of a multimedia presentation called Metamorphosis at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor. Another poem focuses on his emotional visit to the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, as a teenager.
Dworkin has been featured in a documentary called Breaking the Sound Barrier; he’s produced and recorded two CDs and has published an autobiographical book of poetry and a children’s book. As his beloved Sphinx Organization prepares to celebrate its 15th year, he’s also putting the finishing touches on a memoir that he expects will be published by late summer.
“People think I’m a workaholic; but from my perspective, I simply don’t work. I get to get up every day and do what I love,” he says. “My work is artistic excellence, enhancing education and helping young people; and that just fills me with such a sense of purpose.”
When he’s not working, Dworkin enjoys watching independent films and considers himself a “foodie.” You might see him at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor or at various other local establishments that specialize in Indian, Thai and Mediterranean fare.
While culinary creations, music, family and other artistic mediums sustain him, his life’s work is to be a positive force for social change. His ultimate goal is to change the face of classical music — and to enhance it for future generations.
“I’d like to see a day when classical music plays a part in the everyday lives of young people,” he says. “I think classical music needs and is desperately seeking new interpretations and diverse voices.”
Editor’s Note: You can catch Aaron Dworkin’s upcoming performance at the University of Michigan Museum of Art Helmut Stern Auditorium, 525 S. State St., in Ann Arbor, on Sunday, March 6, at 6 p.m. A reception will follow the one-hour performance. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, go to www.umma.umich.edu.