In-Studio with Coleman Itzkoff

Coleman Itzkoff


Emi Ferguson: Hello. I'm Emi Ferguson, and tonight I'm live in the studio with Cellist Coleman Itzkoff on this edition of the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase.


Emi Ferguson: Now in its 47th year, the Young Artists Showcase is generously underwritten by the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Family Foundation. And tonight we are joined live in the studio at WQXR by Cellist Coleman Itzkoff and Pianist Mika Sasaki, who will join us later in the program. Welcome.

Coleman Itzkoff: Thank you.

Emi Ferguson: Hey.

Coleman Itzkoff: Hey.

Mika Sasaki: Hi. Hello.

Emi Ferguson: Thanks for joining us, and I'm so excited to have you both here tonight. I know you've got a lot of incredible music to share with all of our listeners, so let's hit it off. Here's Cellist Coleman Itzkoff performing his arrangements of two works by Johann Sebastian Bach.

[MUSIC - Bach: Prelude, BWV 999 and Courante, BWV 1013- Coleman Itzkoff, cello; Mika Sasaki, piano]

Emi Ferguson: Cellist Coleman Itzkoff performing his own arrangements of J.S. Bach's prelude from BWV 999 originally for solo luten work and the Courante from BWV 1013 originally for solo flute. And as a flute player, I love to hear Bach's Partita for Solo Flute played on other instruments. I've heard it performed by clarinet players, French horn players, even tuba players, but rarely on the cello. Coleman, what made you wanna take these pieces and make them your own?

Coleman Itzkoff: Well, first of all, thank you for indulging me. It's not the--

Emi Ferguson: Oh my goodness. A real treat and a pleasure.


Coleman Itzkoff: It's quite intimidating playing a flute partita for a flutist. Yeah, this-this sort of started to happen over the pandemic. I, like many other musicians, was turning to the music of Bach for solace and, um, reason in all of the chaos that was COVID pandemic. And I felt myself wandering over to the violin partitas and sonatas first just-just to get to know his music better, really. And, um, it-- There's something about the music of J.S. Bach that is very universal. Ma-many people have talked about that. And, um, I think it's-it's not so unprecedented to-to his- arrange his music for other instruments.

Emi Ferguson: Not at all. It's, you know, it stands the test of that so beautifully.

Coleman Itzkoff: Mm-hmm.

Emi Ferguson: And I know that you are no stranger to performing all of this music, not only on the modern cello, but also on the baroque cello. And today you were using a Baroque bow in the studio.

Coleman Itzkoff: Mm-hmm.

Emi Ferguson: Is that correct?

Coleman Itzkoff: That's right. That's right.

Emi Ferguson: Uh, and so more typically associated with Baroque music, of course, is Bach, but today, composers are getting more and more inspired by the sounds and the beauty of the Baroque cello. And is it true that your next piece that you're gonna play for us, Reena Esmail's Varsha, was originally written for the Baroque cello?

Coleman Itzkoff: Yes. Uh, that was its original configuration. It was- it was commissioned by J415-

Emi Ferguson: Mm.

Coleman Itzkoff: -Juilliard's Historical Performance Program. And it was actually, um, one of the first concerts I heard upon moving to New York back in 2019, I believe.

Emi Ferguson: Wow.

Coleman Itzkoff: -at St. John the Divine. Um, she-she wrote this piece, Varsha, uh, to be an interlude between two of the movements of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ.

Emi Ferguson: Mm-hmm.

Coleman Itzkoff: And I remember it was such a magical evening in St. John the Divine hearing this piece. I thought, "Man, I really would love to play this someday." And this was the perfect opportunity.

Emi Ferguson: Wonderful. Well, here's Coleman performing Reena Esmail's Varsha, followed by Pēteris Vasks' Dolcissimo from Das Buch.

[MUSIC - Esmail: Varsha - Coleman Itzkoff, cello; Mika Sasaki, piano]

[MUSIC - Vasks: "Dolcissimo" from Das Buch - Coleman Itzkoff, cello]

Emi Ferguson: Cellist Coleman Itzkoff performing two solo cello pieces by composers Reena Esmail and Pēteris Vasks. Coleman, what made you decide to pair Reena's work with Pēteris's Dolcissimo?

Coleman Itzkoff: Uh, the two pieces actually share an interesting connection. Reena's Varsha was inspired by the Crucifixion scene. It's Jesus asking for it to rain.

Emi Ferguson: Hmm.

Coleman Itzkoff: I thirst are the words that-that Haydn used. And when I first learned the Vasks, I was taught it by a-a Lithuanian cellist named David Geringas. And he told me-- It's not in the program notes, but what he told me [laughter] was that this movement represented the life of Jesus. The full title of the work is Gramata Cellam.

Emi Ferguson: Hmm.

Coleman Itzkoff: Uh, which means the book of cello, but it has another title, which is more widely known as just the book Das Buch. And David told me that the-the book that Vasks is talking about is, uh, the Good Book, the-the two books of the Bible. And this second movement, Dolcissimo, is representative of the New Testament and, uh, the life of Jesus. So there was that connection.

Emi Ferguson: A programmatic one. Mm.

Coleman Itzkoff: Yeah. And also there's a sort of vibe connection. I mean, the Vasks uses a drone, very similar to the-the Malhaar raga that Reena uses, they seem to be speaking to something very similar. Um, so I thought it would make for a nice pairing.

Emi Ferguson: And the Vasks uses some-some extended technique, shall we say? [laughter] What were we all hearing just then?

Coleman Itzkoff: That was me. Um, uh, yeah, I just--

Emi Ferguson: One-man band. [laughs]

Coleman Itzkoff: One-man band, there you go. Um, actually, it-it's indicated in the score, uh, that you ca- you have the option to whistle if you can't make it up in that countertenor range, but I-I challenged myself, and it's really at the top of my register. Uh, uh, you can hear me straining a little bit [laughs] at recording but--

Emi Ferguson: It's amazing. And I-I remember hearing you play this piece, um, Pēteris Vasks Dolcissimo when I first met you years ago and being totally blown away by it. And every time I hear it, it's just incredible. So thank you for bringing these two wonderful new pieces of music to the studio. And when we come back, Coleman will be joined by pianist Mika Sasaki for performances of music by Clara Schumann, Mario Lavista, and Claude Debussy here on the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase.

I'm Emi Ferguson, and on this week's edition of The McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase, I'm live in the studio at WQXR with cellist Coleman Itzkoff, a performer who stands at the intersection of Baroque, classical, new music, contemporary dance, and experimental theater. You might hear him premiering works by living composers and performing Baroque music on historical instruments in the same concert, delivering enigmatic monologues and a piece of avant-garde dance theater, as well as dancing in said piece, composing, arranging and so much more. Whoa, Coleman, it sounds exhausting. How did you get into contemporary dance and experimental theater?

Coleman Itzkoff: Yeah, well, as you know, we're both founding members of this ensemble AMOC, the American Modern Opera Company. And when I first began working with AMOC, the director, Zack Winokur, put myself and dancer, Or Schraiber, in a room into this dance studio, and told us to make a piece. We had an hour. The only rule was that I was not allowed to play the cello. And so Or and I just very quickly found this language of-of dance and gesture together. I had never done anything like that before. I-I don't have any dance background. I wasn't a theater kid. I was a skateboarder, actually. [laughter]

Um, so maybe that gave me a little bit of, uh, balance and body awareness, but I found the process exhilarating. So that was about six years ago, and I've been encouraged by my dancer friends ever since to-to continue, uh, doing that sort of work. And, um, I love it. I still feel like a total dilettante doing it. But, um, uh, they keep asking me back, so, um, I'm gonna keep doing it until, uh, my knees get too old. [laughs]

Emi Ferguson: Oh, you're far from that. And-and are we able to see you dance in New York City anytime soon?

Coleman Itzkoff: Yes, there will be opportunities in the- in the coming season for me. Um, if you're in LA, if you happen to be listening from there, I-I'll be performing a piece, uh, by Carolyn Chen called How to Fall Apart. And, uh, not only do I dance in that piece, but I ride my skateboard and play cello at the same time, so you have to see that.


Emi Ferguson: What? Okay, but do you use your cello or do you use a stunt-double cello? How does that work?

Coleman Itzkoff: Um, mom, if you're listening, I want you to turn-turn this off now. Uh, you know, I use my- I use my real cello for that actually. But, um-

Emi Ferguson: Whoa.

Coleman Itzkoff: -it's very safe. I'm-I'm very experienced at-at skateboarding. And-and I'm on my back. So there's really no-no danger at all.

Emi Ferguson: Okay, well-

Coleman Itzkoff: Mom, I promise.

Emi Ferguson: -knock on wood here. Um, and sort of at the heart of all of that is collaboration, getting to work across multiple fields with lots of different people. And in that spirit, I want to welcome pianist Mika Sasaki to the studio. Hi, Mika.

Mika Sasaki: Hello, hello. Thank you for having me.

Emi Ferguson: Oh, it's a pleasure to have you here. And like Coleman, Mika's guiding force is collaboration. And you can hear her here in New York City performing with groups including Ensemble Mélange and Decoda, as well as teaching keyboard skills, piano, and chamber music at the Juilliard School. What a treat to have you both here today. And now we'll get to hear you perform together. And Mika, can you tell us what you'll be performing for us?

Mika Sasaki: Sure. Uh, we have Three Romances by Clara Schumann, originally written for violin and piano, but today we get to hear Coleman play it on cello. And on a very sincere place from my-my heart, I'm-I'm so happy to be able to play this work by Clara. Just-

Emi Ferguson: Hmm.

Mika Sasaki: -just learning about her life and everything she went through, and despite the challenges, how she left us with these beautiful pieces. And it's also among her last works that she left us with. So-

Emi Ferguson: Wow.

Mika Sasaki: -you know, the more opportunities to play with beautiful musicians and to be able to share with more audiences, um, uh, it-it's just, I'm really gra-grateful.

Emi Ferguson: Wonderful. Here's Coleman Itzkoff and Mika Sasaki, playing Clara Schumann's Three Romances.

[MUSIC - C. Schumann: Drei Romanzen, Op. 22 arr. cello/piano - Coleman Itzkoff, cello; Mika Sasaki, piano]

Emi Ferguson: Cellist Coleman Itzkoff and pianist Mika Sasaki performing Clara Schumann's Three Romances, arranged for cello and piano. Coleman, I know that the next piece you're playing tonight is inspired by some other kinds of sounds.

Coleman Itzkoff: That's right. This is the- one of the two pieces on this program that was actually written for my instrument. [laughter]

Emi Ferguson: Yes.

Coleman Itzkoff: Finally. And-and the sounds that you're talking about, um, Lavista rights in the introduction to this piece that he was inspired by a quote from the naturalist and author, Gerald Durrell. He writes, "The Elizabethan lovers of the animal world are the birds. They dress up with magnificent robes. They dance, and they exhibit themselves." So these three movements are, um, his attempt to musically paint the courtship of two imaginary birds.

Emi Ferguson: Wow. All right. So we have cellist Coleman Itzkoff and pianist Mika Sasaki performing Mario Lavista's Three Secular Dances.

[MUSIC - Lavista: Tres Danzas Seculares - Coleman Itzkoff, cello; Mika Sasaki, piano]

Emi Ferguson: Cellist Coleman Itzkoff and pianist Mika Sasaki performing Mario Lavista's Three Secular Dances, inspired by the courtship of two birds. And since we are hearing music of the birds, we thought we'd reach into our archives and hear Coleman perform a piece by another Bird, a `Bird who shares Coleman's love for string instruments, singing, whistling, and so much more. Composer Andrew Bird. Here's Coleman Itzkoff playing Andrew Bird's Hover II at the 2022 Ojai Music Festival with the ensemble Ruckus.

[MUSIC - Bird (arr. Emi Ferguson): Hover II - Coleman Itzkoff, cello; Ruckus]

Emi Ferguson: Coleman Itzkoff performing my arrangement of Andrew Bird's Hover II with the Ensemble Ruckus live at the 2022 Ojai Music Festival. And for their last piece on today's show, Coleman and Mika are going to reach back to when composer Claude Debussy was a young artist himself. Composing his Petite Suite for piano four hands at the age of 27. Here's Coleman Itzkoff and Mika Sasaki performing their arrangement of Claude Debussy's Minuet from the Petite Suite.

[MUSIC - Debussy: Petite Suite, III. Menuet - Coleman Itzkoff, cello; Mika Sasaki, piano]

Emi Ferguson: Claude Debussy's Minuet performed by Coleman Itzkoff and Mika Sasaki. What a treat it has been to have Coleman and Mika live with us here in the studio. And with you guys, no repertoire is safe. Pia-piano four hands, bird song, violin pieces, flute pieces, you name it. Thank you for bringing all of this music to us today.

Coleman Itzkoff: Thank you so much, Emi.

Mika Sasaki: Thanks for having us.

Emi Ferguson: You can hear Coleman and Mika performing here in New York City as members of groups including AMOC, Ruckus, Twelfth Night, Decoda, and around the country. The Young Artists Showcase is generously underwritten on WQXR by The Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Family Foundation. Here's Terry McGraw with more.

Terry McGraw: Good evening, everyone. It's great to be with you. And it's always great being with the Young Artist Showcase and to hear these really wonderful and inspiring musicians as they continue to share their incredible gift with us every week. I can't wait to hear the fabulous talent coming up on the Showcase, and I am so pleased to be able to support the series all through its well over four decades on WQXR. And there's so much more to come.

Emi Ferguson: Thank you, Terry, and special thanks to Coleman Itzkoff and Mika Sasaki for joining us in the studio today. Many thanks to our WQXR production team, Laura Boyman, Max Fine, and Aimée Buchanan with assistance from Yueqing Guo. Our session engineer is Irene Trudel. Our generous program underwriter is the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. I'm Emi Ferguson. Good night.

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