By Mark Thomas Ketterson
As Ravinia continues to explore the output of the great Leonard Bernstein, one should pause and remember that Bernstein was not only one of America’s most celebrated composers and conductors; he was also one of our most valuable educators. Bernstein’s series of Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic—more than 50 programs in all over 14 years, between 1958 and 1972—stands among his greatest achievements.
No doubt Bernstein would have beamed upon the accomplishments of the 16-year-old cello virtuoso Ifetayo Ali-Landing, who will perform his Meditation No. 3 from Three Meditations from ‘Mass’ at Ravinia this summer with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on July 27—her debut with our nation’s top ensemble. At an age when most people her age are concerned with acne or just making it through gym class alive, Ms. Ali-Landing has already amassed a slew of important awards and concert appearances. She was the Sphinx Competition Junior Division First-Place Laureate for 2017 (Second-Place Laureate the year before) and a winner of the 2016 DePaul Concerto Festival for Young Performers. She has performed with symphony orchestras in Wilmington, Miami, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Buffalo. In 2018 she made her Symphony Center debut with the Chicago Sinfonietta.
She is also a delight to speak with. Though Ali-Landing discusses her craft with firecracker-quick intelligence and considerable maturity, she is hardly a stuffy hothouse flower. She is altogether charming, with a playful smile in her voice that reflects a genuinely warm being beneath all that talent. The competition milieu works for her too. “I love the pressure,” she enthuses. “I think it’s what motivated me. I started competing when I was six. That’s how I improved, because you have to practice for competitions. The awards are just a bonus. It makes me a better player.”
Ali-Landing grew up in Chicago’s South Shore and boasts an extraordinary musical pedigree. Her mother is violinist Lucinda Ali-Landing, executive director of the Hyde Park Suzuki Institute. Her great-grandmother was a pianist, her grandfather a violist, and her two sisters play piano, violin, and viola. Ali-Landing began violin study at 2, but moved to cello at 4. There are some family lore discrepancies for the switch, but it all worked out fine as far as Ali-Landing is concerned. “I am still playing cello because I love it,” she says bluntly. “I love the sound. I love the deep, rich tone that you can get. You can do so much with it. It’s just, in my opinion, the best instrument. Yeah.”
She initially studied with her mother and with Megan Lauterbach, then, as she was turning 9, auditioned for Hans Jørgen Jensen at Northwestern. “I have been studying with him ever since. Because I’m going off to college this year I ‘officially’ had my last lesson with him a few weeks ago, but I still plan on taking lessons from him every now and then because I’m going to miss him too much. I’m going to Colburn in LA to study with Clive Greensmith. His studio is amazing. I am excited to be around them.” Ali-Landing is quick to credit her mother and aunt as her greatest influences. “They did 65% of the work,” she insists. She also greatly admires Tahirah Whittington and Patrice Jackson, both former Sphinx winners.
Her practice regimen is rigorous, but reasonably flexible. “I try not to set a specific time. I’ll say I want to practice around four hours, but I won’t say four hours on the dot, no more and no less. That’s not productive. I start with techniques, like scales. I’ll do a few etudes, thirds, sixths. Then, depending on what I have coming up, I will jump into those pieces. If that goes quickly, I’ll start doing stuff for fun. I’ll make up a piece, or play something I heard on the radio and sing along—even though I can’t sing! There’s a lot of sacrifice involved. I missed a lot of birthday parties. Yeah, it’s a lot. But it’s definitely worth it.
“About a week before I got the email from Ravinia I said to my mom that the next piece I wanted to play was the Bernstein Meditations! So that worked out perfect.” She also loves Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto and Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante. “I have been begging to play that. I’m just waiting until someone lets me. I’m hoping.”
Ali-Landing displays astonishing poise, and there is an easy elegance in her presentation that is striking. She seems cool as a cucumber, but she disarmingly admits things aren’t always that serene inside. “I’ve always been a naturally outspoken person. If you ask my family, they will tell you I have always talked a lot. But I do get nervous when I do interviews and stuff. I just think of how much I love to talk. People ask me if I get nervous in performance. I definitely get nervous; in my opinion, if you don’t, you aren’t human. But I know that I’ve prepared, I’ve done my very best, and I just try to have fun once I get to the performance. You think, you’ve done this before; you’ve had a lot of help. You’ve got this. That’s not always how I feel, but that’s how I make myself feel. I say it to myself so much it tricks me into thinking that. And it usually helps. Good tip!
“I love to see the joy on people’s faces. This is something I have spent so long preparing, to do what I love to do. It is just a joy for me.” That said, the attention she is receiving can be daunting. “It’s weird. I definitely feel more pressure. I get these moments where I wish that no one would look at me, so I could walk out of the house in sweats and wouldn’t have to worry about it. But I can’t go to a performance in sweats, I have to dress up!”
Ali-Landing has certainly dealt with typical teenage challenges, like the time she told her mother she wanted to get a Mohawk. Oh, and use makeup: “There’s a rule in my family where we weren’t allowed to wear makeup or heels until we were 13. So I was counting the days. I didn’t even know if I liked makeup, I just knew I wasn’t allowed to use it, so therefore I had to. I was a very stubborn child!”
She also listens to all kinds of music, and is a proud computer geek. “I listen to everything. I’m a rap fan; R&B, hip-hop, just about anything, I listen to it. You can’t get everything out of classical; you need to hear other types of music as well. In 2017, I was super into building computers. That is all I wanted to do. I would go to websites and add items to my cart. It’s way more expensive than I thought it would be. So then it’s ‘never mind’; delete, delete, delete. I still plan on getting some certificates in IT so I can always have that as a hobby. I might get into video game designing one day. I am interested in entrepreneurship and starting my own business doing what I want to do. I just have to figure out what that is! I definitely want to do children’s concerts. But I want to get my master’s and my doctorate, so I’ll be in school for a while.”
At the moment however, Ali-Landing is focused on her Ravinia/CSO debut. “I am in awe. I still can’t believe it’s really happening. I grew up at Ravinia practically. My mom would get one of those yellow school buses, and we would drive up and watch performances. We were so young, and my friends were there, so we spent most of the time running around the park, there was so much space to play. But the performance I specifically remember is Yo-Yo Ma. I remember feeling just awe. I was probably around five. I knew that one day I wanted to perform there. That was my goal. And the fact that it is happening right now—I don’t even know how to feel.
“I don’t have the words to express my gratitude, first of all to even say I am performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and with Marin Alsop. I am incredibly grateful. I am nervous, though; I’ve been really nervous about this one. This is a lot bigger than I’m used to. And it’s in my hometown—or near my hometown. I have to represent.”
In an era in which the arts face ever-growing threats of extinction, the passionate commitment of a young person like Ali-Landing is really quite something. It is impossible not to ask what her counsel would be to other artistic young souls. “My best piece of advice would be; don’t compare yourself to other people, because that takes the fun out of everything. Do what is best for you. Have fun how you like to have fun, even if we aren’t talking about music. Your journey is your journey, and you’ll be great. You can’t help yourself by looking at someone else.
“I am a normal person,” Ali-Landing affirms. “I am not an alien species. I put hard work into this, and this all just shows that if you work at something you can be great at it. I am just a normal person who plays classical music.” ▪
Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.
Photos by Earl Gibson III