Two-time Sphinx winner performs with DSO this weekend
Sterling Elliott's mother is a violinist, and wanted a family of musicians. By the time her youngest son was born, she'd already started his older brother and sister on the violin.
"My mother’s dream was to have a family string quartet, but she needed a cellist," said the 20-year-old who will perform the Lalo Cello Concerto with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Thursday through Sunday.
"So when I was still in the womb," Elliott added, "she decided I was going to play cello."
By the time the Newport News, Virginia, native was 5, he was playing chamber concerts with the rest of the family.
"I actually started playing the cello when I was 3," he said. "They have small instruments for kids. I think the one I had was one-sixteenth the size of a real cello."
The cellist will perform in a program that also includes Bizet's "Carmen" and Franck's Symphony in D Minor. Mei-Ann Chen will be the guest conductor.
Elliott comes from a family of high achievers. His oldest brother, Brendon, earned his master's degree from Juilliard, and now plays with Miami's New World Symphony.
For his part, Elliott, who's already performed with the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, is in his third year at Juilliard, and plans to earn a master's there as well.
He credits much of his rocketing ascent to Detroit's Sphinx Organization, which aims to propel young musicians of color into the top ranks of classical music. When he was 14, Elliott took first place in the prestigious Sphinx Competition's junior division. Last year he won the senior division as well.
"Sphinx kickstarted everything," he said, "both in terms of my decision to do music professionally, as well as concert opportunities."
Bagging both the junior and senior division titles is unusual, says Afa Dworkin, Sphinx president and artistic director.
"Sterling is amazing," she said. "Winning both divisions is rare -- only a handful have done so."
Sphinx Competitions are always held at Orchestra Hall, but Elliott won't be returning to that fabled stage. This weekend's program kicks off the 2020 William Davidson Neighborhood Concert Series, with performances in Southfield, Clinton Township and Beverly Hills.
But even if he's not on the Orchestra Hall stage, Elliott concedes he's always jumpy before performances. "Absolutely," he said. "I'm always nervous. That goes with any stage."
As for the composer of the cello concerto he'll perform, Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo, who died in 1892, Elliott admits that most of his classical-music contemporaries aren't crazy about the guy, who's most-famous for his "Symphonie espagnole."
The latter is a staple of violin education, he said. "Teachers often make students work on it for years at a time," Ellio said, "and many come to hate it."
But he admires the cello concerto, which he said has an "amazing operatic feel." And when Elliott's performed it in the past, he said, "All my friends said, 'I didn't used to like this piece, but now I really do' -- which is the best thing I could have heard."
But back to the cellist's mother, who surely must be bursting with pride. Will she be in the audience this weekend?
"Yes," Elliott said. "She'll be at two of the concerts."
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Bizet Suite No. 1 from "Carmen," Lalo Cello Concerto, Franck Symphony in D Minor
7:30 p.m. Thurs., Jan. 9: Congregation Shaarey Zedek, 27375 Bell, Southfield
8 p.m. Fri., Jan 10: Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, 44575 Garfield, Clinton Township
3 p.m. Sun., Jan. 12: Seligman Performing Arts Center, 22305 W. 13 Mile, Beverly Hills
Tickets: $25 - adults; $10 - students