Cellist Sterling Elliott shoots for the stars
Beginning his cello studies at age three and making his solo debut at age seven before winning first place in the 2014 National Sphinx Competition – a competition open to young black and Latin classical string players – Sterling Elliott, now 22, is still on an upward trajectory. Indeed, the Virginia-born musician has performed with numerous orchestras across the United States, including the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. Among the latest performances of 2015, The simple merchant‘s Zachary Lewis wrote: “Cellist Sterling Elliott kept a full separation room within reach with a surprisingly mature narrative from David Popper Hungarian Rhapsody, a spirited and virtuoso centerpiece from the Cleveland Orchestra’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebratory Concert.
Having recently graduated from Juilliard undergraduate degree, Elliott has balanced his school life with that of the stage, with his many notable accomplishments including his solo debut at Carnegie Hall in 2018 and the top prize in the senior division of the 22nd competition. Sphinx’s annual 2019. And most recently he received an Avery Fisher Career Fellowship 2021. But responding to the call to continue his education, Elliott chose to stay at Juilliard, where he is currently enrolled in his masters program. in music for two years.
Since coming out of the pandemic, the young cellist has been busier than ever: in March, he performed with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra; in June, he appeared with Chamberfest Cleveland; in July and August, Elliott will participate in the 19th season of [emailÂ protected], playing on five different programs; and on August 6 and 7, the cellist will take the stage at the iconic Hollywood Bowl for the beloved concerts of the Tchaikovsky Spectacular.
I met Elliott by phone from his home in New York City, where we discussed a myriad of topics, including how COVID affected him personally, his desire to stay in Juilliard, and how being Afro- American had an impact on his career.
Like all musicians who depend on live audiences, your schedule has changed dramatically during the pandemic. What was your last gig and how did you spend your time during the lockdown?
My last performance before COVID-19 was playing the DvoÅÃ¡k Concerto at Carnegie Hall on March 1, 2020. I took the longest break ever played – about a month or two. I had never stopped playing since I was three and the thing was, it was the first time that I had the task of training for anything in particular. I was always practicing something for a performance. It was strange practicing the repertoire, but what for? So I was at home in Virginia and worked on my car. It’s one of my passions [and I] turned my 2003 Acura into a racing car.
Speaking of your home in Virginia, you are the youngest of three siblings who have also performed as part of the Elliott Family String Quartet. Why did you choose the cello?
My mother is and was a musician [but] she had never followed a professional path as a musician and started the Elliott Family String Quartet. She was playing the violin, but soon after the viola, and my two older siblings were playing [violins], so when I was in her womb, she had the cello waiting for me. We haven’t played since my older brother went to college. He’s going to be 27 and that was 10 years ago, and once he went to college, the four of us weren’t in the same place at the same time.
For the [emailÂ protected] chamber music festival, you will play Brahms’ Sextet for Strings and his Piano Quartet No.3, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor, Smetana’s Piano Trio, and you will close the series on August 1 with Piano Quintet by DvoÅÃ¡k. Can you talk about these particular choices?
They chose the songs for us and I can’t wait to play them. The Beethoven and Smetana piano trios, before two or three summers ago, I had never played a chamber piece with piano, a trio or a quartet and so on. It’s still a relatively new experience for me. To date, I have played a few quintets and trios but the trios remain the least played repertoire.
I can’t wait to broaden my piano trio style, because there is something about piano trios that I feel like I’m getting into as a soloist. Each line is so important individually – and that doesn’t mean it isn’t found in string quartets – but it’s much more of an individual component. You have to have your own sound and that’s more of a bigger role. I played the DvoÅÃ¡k piano quintet and it’s great to play from start to finish. it’s very classic DvoÅÃ¡k and the Brahms is a play that I am delighted to study professionally. All string players know this.
I understand that you like to go to sight reading nights. What happens during these gatherings? Do people bring their own music hoping no one has played it before or what?
It’s one of my favorite hobbies and I’m going there tonight. It’s a bunch of musicians – at least four of us – who get together, who hang out, and the person hosting has a music library. I’ve had sight reading nights a number of times and there are times when you play with specific people, usually friends, and things look amazing. Everyone is delighted with each other and [occasionally] this group will form a real chamber ensemble.
It sounds so cool. Would you like to have your own quartet someday?
I do not think so. I love chamber music to death – it’s a category of musical creation, like being in an orchestra, playing solo, or chamber music. But all of that said, I don’t think I want to be a dedicated chamber musician. You travel a lot and you balance a solo career. I don’t have time to commit to one set. I love playing with multiple ensembles but to really get started on this journey, it’s a lot of work. Maybe it’s because I’m still in school.
Speaking of school, are there a lot of Juilliard students who are also performing professionally to the extent that you are, and why do you feel the need to get a masters degree as well?
There aren’t many other Juilliard students, especially undergraduates, who are as good as I am. There is a handful in the classic [department] and that’s all I can say. I saw the need to complete my degree and felt the need to come back for my Masters. There is no way that I could have stopped my studies at this point. I could continue to play as I have been, but I would feel artistically incomplete to stop my learning. There is so much to learn now, and I must continue.
As part of the return to normalcy, you will play Tchaikovsky Rococo variations under the baton of Bramwell Tovey at the Hollywood Bowl’s annual Tchaikovsky show this summer. What are your thoughts on this?
I’ve never played in LA and can’t wait. The Tchaikovsky Rococo variations has been my basic concerto, my most requested concerto, among orchestras. I have been playing it for several years and first learned it when I was 14 years old. My last performance was supposed to be in May in Tacoma and I won’t accept anymore [engagements to perform that work] – at least until I finish my masters.
It always takes time no matter how many times you’ve played it. I never want to put the coin back in my fingers as it was again. I like to rethink ideas and it takes time. I also want to learn more repertoire. It’s a bit of a hindrance in that I have to stop learning new pieces to do that.
You will also get to see the Bowl fireworks when Tovey conducts Tchaikovsky’s Opening of 1812. But before a concert, when you wait backstage to continue, do you have some kind of pre-concert ritual, do you get nervous?
There are nerves, that’s for sure. But the pandemic has taught me to appreciate these nerves, because these nerves are essential to a live performance. You can call them a number of things, but what they are is adrenaline and there is no live performance without it. During the pandemic there were no nerves before the concert and it just wasn’t the same. I’m learning to love them, because I haven’t had them for a year.
And no, I don’t have a ritual. My thing before the concert is to wash my hands four times before a performance, before touching the cello. I hate it when they’re a little oily so I wash my hands for 30 seconds.
As an African American, what is your take on the issue of diversity?
I think the diversity in classical music has improved to some extent since I started getting into it at the age of 13. I noticed his absence – in a professional sense. When I talk to my elders, I feel like there is a huge increase in my generation from their time, but it’s always there when I go to those professional engagements, when I go to festivals. of music, it’s the same situation. I’m one of one or maybe one of two musicians of color. It is improving, but there is so much a long way to go when it comes to representation in classical music.