When Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s fifth Summermusik festival opens Saturday (Aug. 4) with a program of music by British composers or about Britain, it will serve as a homecoming for 25-year-old cellist Coleman Itzkoff. He left Cincinnati eight years ago for college and a professional career and will return to perform Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85. For the cellist, this appearance marks his Cincinnati debut as a professional. He is now a highly acclaimed soloist, chamber musician and educator.
There will be more than the usual family pride: Itzkoff’s mother, Heidi Yenney, will be playing in the orchestra, where she’s principal violist.
“I’ll have to work harder to focus on my music while he’s playing,” she says. “But it is super exciting.”
Itzkoff, speaking from Vermont where he’s participating in a chamber music festival, says, “There’s a joy in coming home and playing with this orchestra. I’ve been away for eight years and now I’m a different person.”
Music has always been part of Itzkoff’s life. Besides his mother, his father Gerald is a first violinist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Itzkoff began cello lessons at age 5 and explains he decided to make music his life when he was 9. “I heard a recording of the Schubert cello quintet’s second movement and I thought I could be happy doing this for the rest of my life,” he says.
As a seventh-grader, Itzkoff landed the principal cello seats in Walnut Hills High School’s chamber orchestra and in the CSO’s Youth Orchestra, and he won the CSYO concerto competition twice. By the time he was in high school, he’d performed with the CSO, the CCO and area chamber ensembles.
In addition to degrees from Rice University and the University of Southern California, Itzkoff participates in chamber music festivals around the world. It was while winning the concerto competition at the Aspen Music Festival that he first performed Elgar’s Cello Concerto.
“It’s so powerful — it’s one of the deepest and most tragic works,” he says.
Considered to be Elgar’s final work, the concerto — the composer’s response to the cataclysmic destruction of World War I — was not well received at its 1919 premiere. But it is now part of the standard cello repertoire, noted for the beauty of its reflective passages and intensely moving lyricism.
Elgar’s response to the war is apparent in the famous opening chords, with the cello, anguished and mournful, subsiding into a low note of despair.
“There’s this devastating passion followed by intensely reflective passages,” Itzkoff says. “When the original theme returns at the end, it’s overwhelming.”
For CCO artistic director Eckart Preu, the Elgar concerto is a pivotal part of Summermusik’s opening program, and embodies a high point of English music development. “It’s one of the most recognizable pieces, and since there’s a chamber arrangement, it’s doable for us,” he says.
The program at the School for Creative and Performing Arts also includes CCO premieres of William Boyce’s Symphony No. 5 in D Major and John Lunn’s “Downtown Abbey: The Suite,” plus Franz Joseph Haydn’s “London” Symphony, and “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” by George Frideric Handel.
Both of Itzkoff’s parents supported their son’s decision to turn pro, and they continue to advise him as he navigates the Classical music world.
“When Coleman received the CCO offer, he was committed to a chamber music festival in Vermont,” Yenney says. “I suggested he talk with the festival organizers. They were excited about the opportunity and they helped make it happen.”
There will be a large family contingent in the audience at Saturday’s concert: Itzkoff’s father, brother and sister, plus members of Yenney’s family who are also musicians. Itzkoff acknowledges that this performance marks a dividing line for him. (He also plays two sold-out chamber concerts at the Taft Museum of Art.)
“When I was a kid, these appearances were a novelty,” he says. “Now I hope I’m being treated as an artist who’s just beginning a career. This time it’s different.”
Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra begins Summermusik by presenting British Invasion 7:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, Over-the-Rhine. Tickets/more info: ccocincinnati.org.