Let us praise a great man: Aaron Dworkin, who had a dream that became reality. He was aware that Latin-American and African-American youngsters had little or no exposure to classical music, yet had the innate ability to succeed in the genre if only given a chance, and financial backing. thus, the Sphinx Competition. From a baby-steps beginning, we now have a nationally-famed organization, and we have seen (and heard!) the bright shining stars emerging.
Two of these stars shone on Friday, March 15 at the Cube for an appreciative audience of Pro Musica members and many others. Neither artist has yet reached the age of twenty, and yet their skills can easily be compared to those performers twice their age.
Sterling Elliott (19) gave us a dazzling display of virtuosity with three movements of the unaccompanied Suite for Cello # 6 by J.S. Bach. Bach’s Suites are merciless! One slip-up and the performer is exposed! It takes tremendous concentration and intelligence to negotiate this, and Mr. Elliott was note-perfect: not one lapse; not a single ugly sound. Amazing! What added to the enjoyment was the fact that Sterling’s instrument was built in Bach’s lifetime. It produced beautiful sound.
Hannah White (17) likewise played a solo sonata (# 2 for Violin), and she, too, was flawless. Bach gave her every tricky passage imaginable: double-stops, runs, and melodic legato playing. Nothing seemed to faze Ms White. Splendid sound throughout. Brava!
Tchaikovsky adored Mozart. In an homage to him, he created the “Variations on a Rococo Theme”. It is one of the most endearing works for Cello and orchestra. For this evening the “orchestra” was brilliant pianist Yuki Mack, Detroit’s own. We are so fortunate to have someone who allows our soloists to shine, as she has done before. Sterling Elliott did indeed shine. The version of the Variations he chose was that of the first cellist to play the piece, dedicatee Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who convinced Tchaikovsky to re-arrange the order that he had composed, and it is this version that is most often used: it just makes more sense, musically. Two slow sections gave Sterling the opportunity to demonstrate his marvelous legato playing, while the other five around them were highly entertaining, with double-stops, harmonics, trills, pizzicati: everything! Pure joy! Twenty minutes of everything one wants from the cello. Have a seat next to Mstislav, Sterling!
Yuki Mack also collaborated with Hannah White in Ravel’s “Tzigane” From the soulful low notes in the first minutes of this great composition, one is transported into the world of the Gypsies. Ms White had that section all on her own. Then, Ms Mack on the lowest end of the piano with a mysterious tremolo that eventually led to a blazing teamwork of all of the violinistic tricks of the trade and pianistic eclat. I thought this was the best performance of “Tzigane” that I have ever heard.
After Intermission, our two soloists played together: the Duo for Violin and ‘Cello by Zoltan Kodaly, whose music was always imbued with Hungarian folk melodies. Fascinating piece! It was enjoyable to watch our guests together and play so well. Harriet Steinke, Detroit-based composer still in her ’20s, was present to talk about her composition, “One Foot in the Dark” for all three artists, who learned it in a matter of a few hours. It’s a really fine piece of music: tonal, soothing, “minimalistic” in character. The audience was greatly pleased with this music. Take a bow, Harriet! (She didn’t. She deserved to bask a bit in the appreciation of what we all heard.) Hannah and Sterling performed the final composition together: a very fitting finale: Johan Halvorsen (died in 1935) wrote a work right out of the Baroque: variations on a Passacaglia theme. Bach and Handel would feel right at home. This opus is lots of fun: give-and-take, like two basketball players passing off many times on their way from end to end of the floor. Slam dunk!
What a joyful evening this was! Both of our youngsters are bound to have important careers. Would they have come so far so quickly had it not been for Sphinx? Once again: Thank you, Aaron Dworkin!