In mid-July, four Memphis high school musicians flew to South Africa to hone their skills in classical music performance at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival. Each year, the festival calls on a select number of top international and national institutions to send representative student groups to participate. This festival, which lasts for ten days, promises intensive professional mentorship, practice, and performance with roughly 240 international and national participants of ages ranging from 12 to 28.
These four talented young Memphians who attended the South African festival, participated in the chamber music summer camp of the PRIZM Ensemble, an initiative in Memphis that builds a diverse community through chamber music education, youth development and performance. This is the first year that the Stellenbosch International Festival has invited members of the PRIZM Ensemble to participate, and its students were one of few groups asked to perform their entire set for the festival. These selected students include two rising seniors at Overton High School, a rising junior at Lausanne Collegiate School, and a rising junior at White Station High School.
“This is a great opportunity for all of us,” said Rod Vester, executive director of PRIZM.
PRIZM’s ensembles work toward eliminating the discrepancy of chamber music opportunities afforded to female musicians as well as musicians of color. A form of classical music, chamber music is performed by a small number of musicians and, historically, has been overrepresented by white men.
A 2016 study conducted by the League of American Orchestras found that Hispanic/Latinx musicians constituted 1.8 percent of orchestral musicians in 2002 and grew to just 2.5 percent by 2014. African-American orchestral musicians remained at 1.8 percent throughout the 12-year period.
The Stellenbosch Festival gives students the opportunity to interact and perform with students at an international level while receiving coaching and personal mentorship from internationally renowned musicians. The PRIZM Music Camp & International Chamber Music Festival, which is held in Memphis during the summer, mirrors this ideal by providing top-quality mentorship along with the opportunity to play alongside students of various backgrounds.
In its mission to promote opportunity and inclusion in the Memphis chamber music space, Vester emphasizes the role of not only increasing availability, but accessibility to students and the communities PRIZM serves.
“You have to be intentional. We get on the ground, go into the community, and recruit. Even when we think about starting programs, we ask the community what they want,” said Vester.
In addition to hosting an annual festival and bi-annual music camps for students, the nonprofit works with schools in Memphis to grow their music programs. PRIZM works alongside the faculty of pre-existing music programs, often in five-year intervals, to strengthen a school’s offerings. In some cases, PRIZM’s classes are the students’ first introduction to music. PRIZM currently works with De La Salle Elementary in Binghampton and Cordova High School.
Weston Sprott, principal trombonist for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, has been a faculty member of PRIZM for four years and a faculty member of the Stellenbosch Festival for eight years.
“Any time your music is informed by a broader spectrum of experiences, it’s going to have greater depth,” said Sprott.
For students who wish to participate in its summer programs, PRIZM not only provides economic access to students through offering scholarships, but it also analyzes the spectrum of obstacles to accessibility, such as a student’s means of transportation. In the past, PRIZM has offered transportation by picking up the students from a central location; once it became apparent that some students had difficulty accessing that pick-up point, PRIZM acquired the parents’ permission and hired a bus to pick up students directly from their homes. To this day, PRIZM has never turned down a student.
PRIZM’s commitment to diversity extends to its faculty, and the program’s staff includes professionals from countries including Spain, Venezuela and Costa Rica. Vester explains that students get excited to speak with faculty in their own language and perform pieces written by musicians from their own countries.
“Beethoven and Bach are great. We love performing that music, but we are also diverse in the repertoire that we select. We will find those underrepresented African-American composers, find their music, and play that music,” said Vester.
“I think it’s very difficult for children to believe in something that they can’t see. It’s possible, but it’s not as likely,” said Sprott.
According to faculty at PRIZM, chamber music is more than a gateway to students’ development of their passion for music; chamber music ensembles foster lessons in team-building, compassion, and respect. Chamber music can even connect students with a larger international community, like the one cultivated at the Stellenbosch Festival.
“If any one person looks bad, the entire group looks bad,” said Sprott. “Chamber music teaches you what democracy is supposed to be about.”
The invitation to participate in the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival is indicative of the program’s successful growth in local and international recognition since its beginnings in 2009.
“I hope the community of Memphis has an appreciation for what they have going on right here in their backyard,” said Sprott.