July 15, 2020

CIM Alumnus Titus Underwood Awarded Sphinx Organization's Highest Honor

Titus Underwood

CIM alumnus Titus Underwood (BM ’08, Mack, Rosenwein, Rathbun), the country’s first Black principal oboist of a major orchestra – the Nashville Symphony – has received the 2021 Sphinx Organization Medal of Excellence, the highest honor bestowed by the Detroit-based social justice organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts.

Along with a $50,000 grant, Sphinx annually awards the Medals of Excellence to three extraordinary classical Black and Latinx artists, who, early in their careers, demonstrate artistic excellence, an outstanding work ethic, a spirit of determination and an ongoing commitment to leadership and their communities. 

Underwood has developed a distinguished career over many years. Prior to joining NSO, he was acting associate principal of the Utah Symphony and performed as guest principal of the Pittsburgh and Miami symphony orchestras and the Florida Orchestra, and has played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well as the Atlanta, San Diego and Puerto Rico symphonies. He also has performed as principal oboe in Chineke!, Gateways Music Festival and the Bellingham Festival of Music.

In addition to an active orchestral career, he has also worked with the PRIZM Ensemble in Memphis, TN. Underwood is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in American orchestras and regularly presents on this topic.

“The Sphinx Organization has always meant a lot to me, as my late sister Naira was a Sphinx (violin) alum who introduced me to the organization over 15 years ago,” Underwood said. “Receiving this award will allow me to fund other projects that will hopefully inspire other future trailblazers in the industry.”

Underwood has been a tireless advocate for racial justice throughout his career. Most recently, he organized a tribute to Black Lives Matter by bringing together a team of fellow classical musicians to perform the Black National Anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing on YouTube.

At CIM, Underwood studied with the late John Mack, legendary principal oboe of The Cleveland Orchestra, as well as fellow Mack students and CIM faculty Frank Rosenwein (BM ’00), current principal oboe of The Cleveland Orchestra, and Jeffrey Rathbun (MM ’83), the Orchestra’s assistant principal oboe. He received his master’s degree at The Juilliard School where he studied with Elaine Douvas (BM ’86, Mack), principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York City.

“We are so proud of Titus Underwood. As one of CIM’s distinguished alumni, he exemplifies the standard of excellence our graduates are recognized for around the world, and it is fitting that he receive the Sphinx Organization’s highest honor,” said Paul W. Hogle, CIM’s president and CEO. “This is an important moment to celebrate the hard work, brilliance, sacrifice and success Titus has experienced throughout his great career. His future is so bright – and limitless.”

Along with Underwood, Sphinx awarded Medals of Excellence to internationally renowned conductor Lina González-Granados, the Solti Conducting Apprentice at the Chicago Symphony, and composer Carlos Simon, whose music ranges from concert music for large and small ensembles to film scores with influences of jazz, gospel and neo-romanticism.

“Amidst this challenging yet transformative time, the commitment to excellence demonstrated by Lina Gonzales-Granados, Carlos Simon and Titus Underwood offer all of us hope and vision for a more just and equitable future,” said Afa S. Dworkin, Sphinx president and artistic director. “They stand upon the mighty shoulders of generations of Black and Latinx artists who have made significant contributions to the world of music. The opportunity to help empower their careers today is a true privilege: together, we look forward to witnessing how they will help transform our field.”