Beginning his cello studies at the tender age of three and making his solo debut at seven before winning first place in the 2014 National Sphinx Competition — one that is open to young Black and Latinx classical string players — Sterling Elliott, now 22, is still on an upward trajectory. Indeed, the Virginia-born musician has appeared with numerous orchestras across the United States, including the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. Of the latter 2015 performance, The Plain Dealer’s Zachary Lewis wrote: “Cellist Sterling Elliott held a full Severance Hall in his grasp with a strikingly mature account of David Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody, a feisty virtuoso showpiece on the Cleveland Orchestra’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Concert.”
Having recently earned his undergraduate degree at Juilliard, Elliott balanced his school life with that of performing, with his many notable accomplishments also including making a solo debut at Carnegie Hall in 2018 and snagging first prize in the senior division of the 22nd Annual Sphinx Competition in 2019. And more recently, he was awarded a 2021 Avery Fisher Career Grant. But heeding the call to further his education, Elliott opted to remain at Juilliard, where he is currently enrolled in its two-year master of music program.
Since emerging from 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 take part in the 19th season of Music@Menlo, performing on five different programs; and on August 6–7, the cellist will take the stage of the iconic Hollywood Bowl for the venue’s beloved Tchaikovsky Spectacular concerts.
I caught up with Elliott by phone from his home in New York, where we chatted about myriad topics, including how COVID affected him personally, his desire to stay on at Juilliard and how being an African-American has impacted his career.
Like all musicians who depend on live audiences, your schedule radically changed during the pandemic. What was your last concert and how did you spend your time during lockdown?
My last performance before COVID-19 was playing the Dvořák Concerto in Carnegie Hall on March 1, 2020. I took the longest break ever from playing — about a month or two. I had never stopped playing since I was three and the thing was, it was the first time I had the task of practicing for nothing in particular. I was always practicing something for a performance. It felt strange practicing repertory, but for what? So, I was at home in Virginia and worked on my car. It’s one of my passions [and I] built up my 2003 Acura into a racecar.
Speaking of your home in Virginia, you are the youngest of three siblings who also performed as part of the Elliott Family String Quartet. Why did you opt for the cello?
My mom is and was a musician [but] she’d never followed a professional path as a musician and started the Elliott Family String Quartet. She played violin, but soon after the viola, and my two older siblings played [violins], so when I was in her womb, she had the cello waiting. We don’t perform any more since my oldest 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 spot at the same time.
For the Music@Menlo chamber music festival, you’ll be playing Brahms’s Sextet for Strings and his Piano Quartet No. 3, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C Minor, Smetana’s Piano Trio, and you’ll close the series on August 1 with Dvořák’s Piano Quintet. Can you talk about these particular choices?
They chose the pieces for us and I cannot wait to play them. The piano trios of Beethoven and Smetana, before two or three summers ago, I had never played a chamber piece with piano, a trio or quartet and such. It’s still a relatively new experience for me. To date, I’ve played a few quintets and trios but trios are still the repertory that gets the least played.
I can’t wait to broaden my piano-trio style, because there’s something about piano trios I feel like I’m delving into soloistically. Each line is so individually important — and that’s not to say it’s not found in string quartets — but it’s much more of an individual component. You need to have your own sound and it’s more of a larger role. I’ve played the Dvořák piano quintet and it’s a great blast to play, from the beginning to end. It’s very classical Dvořák and the Brahms is a piece I’m excited to study professionally. All string players know it.
I understand you like going to sight reading parties. What happens at these gatherings — do people bring their own music hoping nobody’s played it before or what?
They’re one of my favorite pastimes and I’m going to one tonight. It’s a bunch of musicians — at least four of us — getting together, hanging out, and the person who’s hosting has a music library. I’ve hosted sight reading parties a number of times and there are times when you’re playing with specific people, usually friends, and things sound amazing. Everyone’s thrilled with each other and [occasionally] that group will go on to form an actual chamber ensemble.
That sounds so cool. Would you like to have your own quartet some day?
I don’t think so. I love chamber music to death — it’s a category of music-making, like being in an orchestra, playing solo, or chamber music. But all that said, I don’t think I want to be a dedicated chamber musician. You’re traveling a lot and balancing a solo career. I don’t have the time to commit to just one ensemble. I love performing with a number of ensembles but to really embark on that journey, it’s a lot of work. Maybe it’s because I’m still in school.
Speaking of school, are there many Juilliard students who are also performing professionally to the extent that you are, and why do you feel the need to also earn a master’s degree?
There’s not too many other Juilliard students, especially undergrads, who perform to the extent I do. There’s a handful in the classical [department] and that is all I can speak for. I saw the need to finish my degree and felt the need to go back for my master’s. There’s no way I could have stopped my education at this point. I could continue performing as I have been, but I would feel artistically incomplete to stop my learning. There’s so much to learn now, and I have to continue.
As part of the return to normal, you’ll be playing the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations under the baton of Bramwell Tovey at the Hollywood Bowl’s annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular this summer. What are your thoughts on that?
I never performed in L.A. and I can’t wait. The Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations has been my staple concerto, my most requested concerto, among orchestras. I’ve been playing it for a number of years and I first I learned it when I was 14. My final performance was supposed to be in May in Tacoma and I will not accept any more [engagements to perform that work] — at least until I finish my master’s degree.
It always takes time no matter how many times you’ve played it. I never want to get the piece back in my fingers as it was. I like to rethink ideas and that takes time. I also want to learn more repertory. It’s a little bit of an obstacle in that sense that I have to stop learning new pieces to do that.
You’ll also get to see the Bowl’s fireworks when Tovey conducts Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. But before a concert, when you’re waiting in the wings to go on, do you have any sort of pre-concert ritual, do you get nervous?
There are nerves, for sure. But the pandemic has taught me to appreciate those nerves, because those nerves are essential to a live performance. You can call them a number of things, but the one that they are is adrenaline and there isn’t a live performance without it. During the pandemic, there were no preconcert nerves 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 preconcert thing is to wash my hands four times before a performance, before I touch the cello. I hate when they’re the slightest bit oily, so I wash my hands for 30 seconds.
As an African-American, what are your views on the issue of diversity?
I think that diversity in classical music has improved to some degree since I started getting into this when I was 13. I was noticing the lack thereof — in the professional sense. When speaking to my elders, it sounds like there’s a huge increase in my generation compared to back in their day, but it’s still there when I go to these professional engagements, when I go to music festivals, it’s the same situation. I’m one of one or maybe one of two musicians of color. It is improving, but there’s such a long way to go when it comes to representation in classical music.