“The future is now.” Common, hackneyed even? Maybe but it will be embodied at Mobile’s Saenger Theatre (6 S. Joachim St.) when 17-year-old cellist Sujari Britt joins Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO) on March 7 and 8.
One of classical music’s most remarkable prodigies, Britt’s splash was inevitable. She was playing piano at age 2, then moved to guitar and violin in quick order. When the 4-year-old heard Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of Camille Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan,” she begged her parents to switch to cello.
“I think the cello’s voice resembles my own voice, and I wanted to communicate through it,” Britt told a reporter when she was just 12. “It’s the strength of the voice of the cello. You can really put emotion into the sound.”
Precocious? Slightly. Alongside violinist siblings Sunnaj and Joelle, she formed the string trio JoSunJari in 2007. Before her teen years, she had already performed at the White House and met her inspirational idol, Yo-Yo Ma.
“She must come from a very intellectual family is all I can think, because it seems like when you hear her talk, she sounds like someone who at a very early age was grappling with intellectually stimulating concepts,” MSO Music Director Scott Speck said.
He called Britt “a very thoughtful artist” whose wells of reflection bubble over in her performances.
“She’s playing every dynamic, every phrasing. It comes about as a part of a deliberative process,” Speck said.
So how do you utilize a brilliant young star who still cites classical composers like Brahms and Dvorak as strong influences? You go with one of her cited preferences in Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1.
Like Britt, Saint-Saëns took to the piano at age 2. He was composing in a year’s time and at age 10, gave a concert loaded with Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Handel and Hummel. A polymath, he earned a reputation as a poet and playwright, picked up languages and advanced mathematics easily and held interests in geology and astronomy his whole life.
Saint-Saëns developed his first cello concerto for Auguste Tolbecque, principal cellist in Paris’s Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. Its three movements sport a thematic element as its lighter middle portion cushions a dramatic opening and closing, providing arc for the whole.
Britt arrives in Mobile on March 3 and is scheduled for a week filled with outreach programs in area schools.
MSO bursts into the anticipated concert with a good mix of new and historic in Anna Clyne’s 2013 piece “Masquerade,” composed for the BBC Proms, or promenade concerts. An innate aspect ties Clyne’s work to Mobile’s pre-Lenten raison d’être.
“[The Proms] were originally a masquerade ball so it harkens back to the Baroque period, but it is a very modern piece so it has all kinds of modern orchestral effects. It’s a swirling, extremely colorful orchestral showpiece to open the concert,” Speck said.
In Clyne’s notes on the work, she nodded to the egalitarian nature of the Proms, the mingling of musical styles and varied professions of attendees. She wrote:
“Other forms of entertainment ranged from the sedate to the salacious with acrobatics, exotic street entertainers, dancers, fireworks and masquerades … Combined with costumes, masked guises and elaborate settings, masquerades created an exciting, yet controlled, sense of occasion and celebration. It is this that I wish to evoke in ‘Masquerade.’”
The show closer is Sergei Prokofiev’s rousing Symphony No. 5. Speck estimated MSO’s last performance of it as close to a decade back.
“Prokofiev wrote it around the time of World War II and it showed both the optimism of World War II as well as the sacrifice that led to it, especially among the siege of Leningrad and other Russian hardships,” Speck said.
When the symphony premiered in January 1945 at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the Russian military was beating back Axis powers. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter recalled Prokofiev mounted the podium and raised his baton before the silent hall. Artillery salvos suddenly thundered as the maestro was poised.
“He waited and until the cannon fire ceased, he didn’t begin. There was something very significant, very symbolic in this. It was as if all of us — including Prokofiev — had reached some kind of shared turning point,” Richter said.
The Saturday concert is at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinee is at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are available and range from $15 to $80; student tickets are $10. They can be purchased at 251-432-2010 or at the MSO box office (257 Dauphin St.).
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