No doubt Leonard Bernstein, the force behind the acclaimed Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, would have beamed at the accomplishments of young cello virtuoso Ifetayo Ali-Landing. At just 16, she already has amassed a slew of important awards and concert appearances. The winner of the Sphinx Competition Junior Division First-Place Laureate for 2017 and the 2016 DePaul Concerto Festival for Young Performers, Ali-Landing has appeared with symphony orchestras in Miami, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Buffalo. In 2018, she made her Symphony Center debut with the Chicago Sinfonietta.

Next up, she will make her Ravinia and Chicago Symphony debuts July 27 when she performs Bernstein’s Meditation No. 3 from Mass with the orchestra, under Marin Alsop.

Altogether charming, she speaks with a playful tone that reflects genuine warmth beneath all that talent. The competition milieu works for her, too. “I love the pressure,” she said. “I think it’s what motivated me. I started competing when I was 6. That’s how I improved. The awards are just a bonus. It makes me a better player.”

A native of Chicago’s South Shore, Ali-Landing 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. “I am still playing cello because I love it,” she said bluntly. “I love the sound. I love the deep, rich tone. 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 at age 9, auditioned for Hans Jørgen Jensen at Northwestern. “I have been studying with him ever since,” she said. “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 now and then because I’m going to miss him too much. I’m going to Colburn in Los Angeles to study with Clive Greensmith. His studio is amazing.”

Ali-Landing is quick to credit her mother and aunt as her greatest influences. “They did 65 percent of the work,” she said. She also greatly admires Tahirah Whittington and Patrice Jackson, both former Sphinx winners.

She likes 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. You can’t get everything out of classical; you need to hear other types of music as well,” she said. “In 2017, I was super into building computers. That is all I wanted to do. I still plan on getting some certificates in [information technology] 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. I just have to figure out what that is! 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 and CSO debuts. “I am in awe. I still can’t believe it’s really happening. I grew up at Ravinia practically. My friends were there, so we spent most of the time running around the park. But the performance I specifically remember is Yo-Yo Ma. I remember feeling just awe. I was probably around 5. 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. 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. “I am a normal person,” she said. “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, the Chicago correspondent for Opera News magazine, also has written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera and the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.

This is an excerpt from an article published in the Ravinia magazine. To read the complete version, click here.

TOP: Photo Ifetayo Ali-Landing by Earl E. Gibson III