It’s a very good year – 2022 is – to be 22. At least it is for the two young men featured in Chesapeake Music’s “Rising Stars” concert, a Sunday matinee featuring a pianist and a cellist you’ve probably never heard. Not yet.
One half of a string quartet modestly known as The Adonis, named for the mythological Greek god of beauty and desire. And if they ever considered touring as a chamber duet – now that would be original – they could call themselves Elliot & Elliott.
Introducing Elliot Wuu on piano and Sterling Elliott on cello. They’re recent undergrad graduates of Juilliard School, the private and prestigious performing arts conservatory of New York City. Both are pursuing Juilliard masters with Kovner Fellowships. The second half of the program marks their public concert debut as a collaborative pair.
The program is classically exciting and challenging, though the musicians might have preferred to include a work by an artist still alive when they were born. But their musical heroes include many who represent generations not denoted by end-of-alphabet designations. In fact, Sterling Elliott believes he may be the only cellist, outside of Yo-Yo Ma, to perform Tchaikovsky’s Adante contabile. And in Act I of Rising Stars, Eliott Wuu will perform Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy,” a piece so challenging that even the composer suggested only the devil could play it. And this by a pianist first inspired, at age 5, to classical instrumentation by Yo-Yo Ma. (By the way, Wuu’s Juilliard piano teacher is familiar to fans of Chesapeake Music’s annual chamber music festival, Robert McDonald.)
Here’s an edited transcript of the Spy’s interview with Elliot & Elliott:
Steve Parks: In an interview with Catherine Cho of Chesapeake Music, you mentioned, Elliot, your “bucket list.” It sounded odd to me for someone your age to talk about, well, mortality. So this is my roundabout way of asking, if you don’t mind, both you and Sterling your age. I won’t be carding you, but I’m guessing, as you’ve completed your undergraduate studies at Juilliard that you’re both in your early 20s.
Elliot Wuu: I’m 22, and Sterling is, I believe also 22.
Sterling Elliott: Yes. And we’ve both graduated with our undergraduate degrees.
Steve: 2022 is a good year to be 22, I guess.
(Elliot and Sterling chuckle.)
Steve: Two of the pieces that open the Rising Stars concert in Easton you said are on your bucket list, Elliot. Please share with us why you chose them for this program and why, as a pianist, you find them challenging.
Elliot: Both pieces are on my bucket list because they’re either very musically challenging or very technically challenging. So I have one of each. Schumann’s Kinderszenen is musically challenging and Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy” is the technically challenging one. And they’re on my bucket list because I consider them to be among the hardest in a pianist’s repertoire. For the Schumann, I remember multiple teachers telling me I’m too young to learn it; that it’s something I should be learning when I’ve already had children and experienced a lot of different ways of life and be able to reflect that into the music. . . . But I figured if I start now I could keep nurturing it and maturing with the music. The Schubert is obviously considered one of the most challenging solo piano works. It’s 25 minutes long and keeps building on itself. Even Schubert, when he played it for friends right after he wrote it, stopped in the middle and said, “I can’t do this anymore. The devil can play it!” So if the composer can’t play his own music, I don’t know who will. (Laughter.)
Steve: So, the program continues with pieces by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky before a Saint-Saens finale. Tell us about why, as a cellist, you selected these pieces.
Sterling: This Beethoven sonata was his fourth cello sonata of five, entering what we now call the late period of Beethoven’s work, Opus 102. . . . I feel this is especially musically challenging. Not that his markings are vague; he lays out exactly what he wants us to do. But it’s just the challenge of accomplishing that even within the interpretations of the markings that he puts, For example, a lot of classic Beethoven characteristics are featured in this piece, such as the duality of sudden fortisimissos and pianos and having to make these character switches from the most beautiful melodies to something rambunctious in just a split second – all the while making the phrase musical. And that’s the challenge of this piece. It starts with this serene introduction and actually the theme is a much stormier motif. Just a wonderful Beethoven to play and a great way to start the second half of the program.
The next piece features another to-die-for melody by a completely different composer in a completely different style. This is Tchaikovsky’s Adante contabile. This melody is also the first movement of his only string quartet. It’s now more well-known in this version written by Tchaikovsky for cello and orchestra. This will be a reduction for cello and piano. It’s actually been featured in a lot of movies and it’s the sort of tune that even those who are not familiar with classical music may pick up just by ear. So I’m hoping to get a few people who recognize the tune or, if not, a few people who become new fans. And to end, we’ll have Saint-Sans’ Havanaise, which is originally a violin virtuoso piece. I grew up with two violinists, actually three – my mom, my brother and sister. I’ve always been jealous of the violin repertoire. I still am. I recently discovered this piece as I was coming back to school during the pandemic in 2020, listening to it all night on the train from Virginia to New York. I had been looking for new journeys in my music and I happened to find the one person who had played this piece on cello – none other than Yo-Yo Ma, But that inspired me enough to be possibly the second cellist to play this piece. So I’ve added it to my repertoire and I’m super excited to share it with people.
Steve: Most musicians as accomplished as you are at this age started very early. Tell us about the influences that made playing music so integral in your life.
Elliot: My first instrument was actually the cello when I was 5. And the reason I started with the cello was because Yo-Yo Ma’s concert was my first classical music concert. It was in Berkeley, California. . . . My parents keep reminding me to this day that they purchased such expensive seats and I fell asleep in the middle of the performance. But I do remember him performing and I just loved the sound of the cello so much that I begged my parents to let me start the cello, which I did. I have a sister who is 5 ½ years older than me and since I was a baby I’d been listening to her practice during naps and just every single day growing up. And I started looking up to her as well. So when I was 6, I told my parents that I wanted to do piano the same time as cello. And they let me. But as a 6-year-old you really want to have some playtime too. And to be able to practice two instruments at the same time was quite a feat when you’re 6. So I decided to stick with piano because I loved it just a tiny bit more. And also because of my sister who was, who is, an amazing pianist and I just wanted to follow in her footsteps.
Sterling: Similarly to Elliot, I grew up hearing music from my siblings. So I was kind of thrown into it. But there’s a bit more of an elaborate story. My mom is a musician, a violinist and now a violist as well. She wanted to pass music on to her kids. She never wanted us, necessarily, to be professional musicians. She just wanted us to play. She actually had this dream of a family string quartet. When she had her first child, my older brother, she started him on a violinette [starter violin] at 3. Then she had my older sister and she just couldn’t wait till 3 to start on the violin. So at this point mom had three violinists. So when she was pregnant with me, she bought a cello. I really had no choice. (Sterling laughs.) When I did get around that age, the story goes that I was crying and throwing a tantrum. So my mother told me a little white lie. She said cellists make more money than violinists. So I guess money talks to 3-year-olds.
Steve: Beyond family, describe other more recent and current musical influences, particularly your influence on each other as chamber partners as well as that of other members of your chamber quartet.
Sterling: Of course, amazing worldwide-known musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and, specifically, Johannes Moser are massive influences, whether listening to recordings, studying performances or seeking out concerts when they come to New York. But for me, my primary influences for inspiration and even learning comes from my peers. I like to say that 50 percent goes to my private teachers from school and before college. And 50 percent comes from my environment – my peers, classmates and other musicians, especially those I collaborate with. When you are collaborating with another musician, there’s so much you learn from figuring out how to speak about music in a coherent and constructive way and receiving that same dialog back to build a better musical idea together. No matter how professional we get, it will never become (Sterling snaps his fingers) like that. Whether it’s been Elliot and our piano quartet or the rest of our killer friends, it’s been friggin’ amazing. It’s hard not to want to be better around them.
Elliot: I don’t know how to add to that. I agree with everything Sterling just said.
Steve: What about some of your piano influences?
Elliot: I listen to a lot of different artists. A lot of young ones such as Daniil Trifonov and Seong-Jin Cho and, of course, legends like Horowitz and Rubinstein. And my current piano teacher Bob McDonald. He’s always emphasized how important it is for solo pianists to learn from chamber music because as a solo pianist you can just stay in your own lane and stick with solo piano for the rest of your life. It’s not like any other instrument where they have orchestras. So he really emphasizes how important it is to train our own ears. To learn how to collaborate, how to make music together that is coherent as well as musically attuned and aligned. And, as Sterling was saying, my peers have been major, major influences on my life and, yeah, our current piano quartet – it’s always been a pleasure to work with.
Steve: How did the pandemic and the absence of live concerts and preparation for them affect your growth as musicians? Were there any upsides to separation from in-person performance?
Elliot: That’s a really important question. The pandemic affected artists around the world. A lot of concerts were canceled or postponed. So we were stuck indoors. You could just practice all the time. And I did a little of that. My normal day had been going to class, studying and practicing the rest of the day. But since that really wasn’t an option anymore and because I live quite near Central Park, I started thinking about taking daily walks. So I started doing that every single day for hours. Just walking in the park. It gave me time to reflect on myself as a person and as a musician and my time just growing up to this point. And I’m really thankful for that opportunity because I think it requires a certain amount of headspace and time for a person to process all that. Which is exactly why I started learning Schumann’s Kinderszenen which translates as Childhood Scenes. It’s Schumann’s take on how children develop. So there’s different aspects of that such as the pleading child, the happy child, the dreaming child. It really gave me time to put my own thoughts and my own experiences into that piece. So I think it really benefitted me alot.
Sterling: One of the most important things, whether we were artists or any humans suffering through the pandemic, is that we had an abundance of time to think about everything in our lives. For us artists, we had time to reflect on our art form, especially since we weren’t on stage doing it or couldn’t do it together. So during that time I stepped away from the cello for the first time ever. It was the first time I wasn’t extremely goal driven. I had always been practicing. When I was younger it was maybe for my mom’s recital or a teacher’s. Just before the pandemic, I was always practicing for something – a competition, a concert. I was never just practicing idly. This was the first time I was presented with this. So I decided to step back from the cello and enjoy my hobby, which is working on cars back home in a garage in Virginia. But this gave me time to remember why we’re doing this and to re-center our goals. It will help us when the world comes back, when the concerts come back and we start collaborating and programming again. . . . It has let us remember our love for the arts separate from the performances.
Steve: Looking beyond graduate studies, what are your goals as professional musicians? What might be on your “bucket lists,” so to speak.
Sterling: Once I finish my master’s degree, I might apply for an Artist Diploma. I hope to continue with solo performances while at the same time I’m hoping not to get lost in the solo world, as amazing and fun it is to travel. I would love to continue collaborating either with my peers at school or peers I meet along the way. I hope to never lose that collaborative aspect of my life. And I hope to just keep following that road and see where it takes me.
Elliot: I don’t mean to be a copycat, but I re-double everything Sterling just said. I think I’m also applying for an Artist Diploma. And just doing more performance and chamber music. I’m looking forward to that. I find chamber equally as important as solo performances.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer now living in Easton.
RISING STARS CONCERT
2 p.m Sunday, Feb. 13, Ebenezer Theatre, Prager Family Arts Center, 17 S. Washington St., Easton. Tickets to live concerts require proof of vaccination, including booster, plus masks. Video streaming of the concert available for one week starting Feb. 14. chesapeakemusic.org