Performing for thousands of people at an ExxonMobil Symphony Summer Nights concert is one of the perks for winners of the silver medal at the Ima Hogg Competition. Cellist Coleman Itzkoff won second prize at this year’s competition for his performance of Bloch’s Schelomo: Rhapsodie hébraïque, which also earned him the Artistic Encouragement Award as voted by the members of the Houston Symphony.
Coleman returns to play Schelomo with Houston Symphony musicians once again at Miller Outdoor Theatre on June 29. He discusses the piece and coming back to Houston, where he also attended Rice University for his bachelor’s degree in 2014.
Houston Symphony: Congratulations on your silver medal at this year’s Ima Hogg Competition!
Coleman Itzkoff: Thank you!
HS: What was it like to compete, and to play alongside Houston Symphony musicians at the finals on June 1?
CI: It had to be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life thus far. The Houston Symphony is world-class. While I know many of the musicians personally, I know all of them from going to hear them during my time at Rice, so that was very special. On top of that, the competition was held in Stude Concert Hall, where I’ve played dozens of concerts in front of a Houston audience—so it was a bit of homecoming for me. Exhilarating, magical!
HS: The piece you’re performing on June 29, Bloch’s Schelomo, was also the selection you performed at the Ima Hogg Competition finals. Why did you choose that piece?
CI: Ernst Bloch’s Schelomo: Rhapsodie hébraïque is one of the most powerful, dark, and complex pieces in the cello repertoire. It was written in 1918 at the tail end of World War I, a conflict of unprecedented violence and devastation, and tragedy can be felt throughout the concerto.
The Bloch has always meant a great deal to me personally. Its source material is the Book of Ecclesiastes, one of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible and supposedly authored by King Solomon himself. In both the book and the piece, the narrator recounts his life experiences and his somewhat pessimistic understanding of human nature, particularly its fallibility.
HS: How would you describe the piece to someone who has never heard it before?
CI: The piece can be broken up roughly into three sections without pause, separated by three solo statements by the cello. The cello represents King Solomon, and the orchestra is all of humanity swirling around him. It’s a very dark, almost pessimistic work without much relief or lightness. But it’s well worth it if you listen closely. The reason I love this piece so much is that I feel like it represents something beyond its purely musical nature, imparting a kind of wisdom, poetry, and vision of, and for, mankind.
HS: What are you most looking forward to at the concert at Miller Outdoor Theatre?
CI: I’m looking forward to getting another chance to play with this great orchestra again, and especially to be able to come back to Houston and see so many dear friends in the audience. And, of course, getting some amazing Tex-Mex after the show.
Hear more: Coleman performs Bloch’s “Schelomo” on June 29 as part of the free ExxonMobil Summer Symphony Nights concert series at Miller Outdoor Theatre! Learn more about the concert.
Top: Coleman Itzkoff performed during the 2019 Ima Hogg Competition at Rice University’s Stude Concert Hall on June 1.