Cellist Anthony Elliott on the importance of the “Memorial to Martin Luther King”

Thank you for joining us for this interview with guest Cellist Anthony Elliott.

Today, Jeremy D. Cuebas sits down with Mr. Elliott to talk about his early experiences as a musician, his mission for educational outreach, and the importance of the Memorial to Martin Luther King by Oskar Morawetz.

Anthony Elliott joins the FCS for our Solemn, Joyful & Ecstatic, our Signature Concert no. 3, live and live-streamed on February 5, 2022. Click here for tickets and more information.

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Interview with Cellist Anthony Elliott

JDC: How did you get started in music?
Cellist Anthony Elliott
Guest Cellist Anthony Elliott

AE: It’s a very funny story, actually. I can remember that around 4th grade they were beginning in orchestra at my school and the teacher came around and wanted to know what instruments everybody wanted to play. And I said “I want to play the drums. I really want to play the drums.” And the teacher looked at me and said, “The drums, eh?” And he went into the back room and came out with a cello and said “here, take this home.”

Well, I was incredibly disappointed, but I did take it home. And it wasn’t long before my life was changed, and I was really embarking on my life-long voyage with the cello. I played a lot in public school, and I really credit fantastic public school educators with the fact that I’m a musician today. Not only did they get me started, but they gave me great inspiration, and they were inspired by the breadth of their own care and musicianship.

I played a lot of instruments growing up. I played the cello, the string bass, the tuba, a little bit of trombone, and a little bit of saxophone. I basically got plugged in wherever they needed me. So, beginning in high school, I started to play in jazz clubs on the string bass, and that’s how I was able to pay for my first cello lessons.

JDC: And playing all those instruments, why was it that you stuck with cello?

AE: I really did love it, but I loved other things too. I loved bass. I loved sports too. I was involved in basketball and football and track and baseball. Finally, I had a couple of little accidents and came back from a musical festival with a broken finger. At that point, unknown to me, my music teacher and my father swung into action and convinced my coaches to cut me from the teams so I could focus on music. My music teacher was a real force of nature, and he kind of turned things around for me and persuaded me to keep going on the cello.

JDC: Could you tell us about the work that you do with public schools and educational outreach?

AE: It’s a way of giving back, and something I feel very connected to. It’s important work that needs to be done. The city of Detroit is nearby, and I go there to work with a lot of the inner-city public schools and try to help them with their music programs. So, I perform with orchestras, I’ve gone to coach orchestras, and I’ve gotten to work with young cellists. I really have loved working with these young people. They are so eager to learn, and I’ve had some incredible musical experiences with them. They inspire me as much as I think I inspire them.

I remember one school I visited, and the bass section was having a hard time getting much in the way of sound. So, I went back to see the bass section to work with them, and I discovered they were using cello bows. And not only were they using cello bows, but there was less than half of the hair than they should normally have. It was no wonder that they weren’t getting much sound. So, I went to my friends at Shar products and asked if they could help me, and I was able to purchase from Shar some bass bows. They threw in rosin and other things that they might need as well. Then the basses got some sound.

JDC: You’re performing the Oskar Morawetz Memorial to Martin Luther King with FCS very soon. What do you think is the best place to introduce this piece to our listeners?
Martin Luther King Jr., photo by Rowland Scherman

AE: I think we have to go back to the time of King’s assassination, and the fact that the nation was so shocked by it. The nation was mourning, and this piece came about because Oskar Morawetz was often attracted to situations that involved grief and suffering. The first work of his that I heard was a piece called From the Diary of Anne Frank.

The Memorial was written originally for Rostropovich, and one of the things that he specific was that he wanted the orchestration to be a little unusual. Something that wasn’t the normal language of the concerto. And that’s when Morawetz decided to write it without a string section. Then, right around that time, Rostropovich gave support to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and that unfortunately caused all of his concerts to be canceled. He was basically put into exile for a time in Russia and was not allowed to tour. And so this work sat for some time until finally the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was able to get it recorded. So, unfortunately, Rostropovich never did return to the work. He had more than 200 premieres of works that he was involved in, so he couldn’t do it with that kind of schedule.

JDC: And what about the music of the Memorial?

AE: Well, once I saw the work, I fell in love with it. The voice of the cello is the grieving soul of the nation. You’ll hear at the very beginning of the piece these dissonant chords in the orchestra played by the brass. And that’s the shock and dismay that the nation began to feel. And then comes the cello, spinning its line. And we go from there to various events in King’s life, including the fatal march in Memphis that preceded the actual assassination. The assassination itself is also depicted in the work, followed by the nation going into mourning.

In the mourning section, there is a spiritual that King references in his march on Washington Speech: “And all of God’s children can say, in the words of the famous spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank god almighty I’m free at last.’” Those words especially haunted Oskar when he was writing.

The melody is actually jaunty and upbeat. So, Oskar was faced with the dilemma of how to incorporate something that is jaunty and upbeat into a piece that was about sorrow. So, he transforms the spiritual in a dark and somber setting towards the end of the piece.

Following that depiction of the spiritual, there’s a section with some high-pitched, ethereal sounding chords, where he’s depicting his aspirations for a better America, for a better world. You can sense the aspirational nature of the music as all the instrumentation begins to wind its way higher and higher and higher. It’s really rather remarkable. So, I just love this piece. I think it’s amazing, and I’m so grateful that I get a chance to perform it again.

JDC: How has your relationship with the piece changed over time?

AE: If anything, it’s probably deepened. One of the things that happened fairly early on in my association with the work was that I was able to do a performance that involved Dr. King’s daughter, Yolanda. She was part of a performance to narrate the Lincoln Portrait when I performed this piece with orchestra. I was able to talk with her about her father, the types of things that were important to him, and his worldview. It was really rather remarkable to get to know his daughter.

JDC: We are so excited, in a very somber way, to be able to perform this piece. It’s rare. This is probably the only time that our audience will get the chance to see this piece live.

AE: I’ve been considering it my mission to persuade other cellists to take up the mantle because I do think it’s a fantastic piece and I think it’s incredibly important, especially in this day and age. One of the people I talked to was Yo-Yo Ma, and I know that he finally did perform it with the New York Philharmonic. I think it’s a piece that we need to hear.

Martin Luther King, from the Minnesota Historical Society
JDC: And why is that? Why is it important?

AE: I think we draw commonality from our understanding of the things that are important. And one of the things that King stressed so much was that he wanted to see a nation where his children, and all children, would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. To me, that’s the important part of Dr. King’s message. I’m a father myself, and I hope that my children will be judged by the content of their character and by their actions, and therefore there’s an obligation on their part on my part, on all of our parts, that our actions and our character be good character. And so I think that this is a piece that we very much need, and his message is one that we very much need.

JDC: So, changing direction: what is something about you that we can’t learn in your bio?

AE: Oh, there’s a lot of things. Colorado was a very important stop for me every summer because I was teaching at Aspen for about 15 years. One of the things that’s probably not known about me is that during those years I was also a junior golf instructor. So, I had a chance to work with a lot of young up-and-coming golfers. I do enjoy the game of golf. I’m not very good, but I can help young people with their fundamentals, help establish their foundation, and give them a respect for the game.

JDC: Will you get a chance to play golf when you come here in February?

AE: I don’t think so. It’s probably going to be freezing when I’m out there. So, I’m hoping I can just get in and out to the Denver Airport okay.

JDC: Do you have any pre or post-concert rituals that you like to do?

AE: Lots of musicians don’t like to eat before they play. But I do. I’ll usually have something light, like pasta or a banana. I usually also like to have some quiet time meditating and warming up.

Some musicians have very elaborate pre-concert rituals. I had a dear friend, who was an oboe player, and he would park his car in the parking lot near the venue. And if the odometer did not have numbers that he was comfortable with, he would drive around the block again, and then he would park the car. If the numbers were okay, then he felt he was going to have success on the concert. So, there are strange rituals that musicians embark upon, but I don’t have anything that’s quite that unusual.

JDC: Thank you so much for joining us today, Anthony. We’re very excited for you to perform the Memorial to Martin Luther King with the Fort Collins Symphony on February 5th, 2022.

AE: Thank you for having me, and I’m very much looking forward to it!

Join us for Solemn, Joyful & Ecstatic, featuring guest Cellist Anthony Elliott, live and live-streamed on Saturday, February 5th at 7:30 p.m. Mountain Time. Click here for tickets and more information.

SC3: Solemn, Joyful & Ecstatic