The strings that bind – or don’t: the Itzkoff-Yenney family

Heidi Yenney and Coleman Itzkoff will both be performing during Summermusik.

Heidi Yenney and Coleman Itzkoff will both be performing during Summermusik. (Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

The word spread quickly. The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra had just announced the lineup for its Summermusik series, and the opening night soloist would be … Coleman Itzkoff.

A rising star

Not only is the 25-year-old cellist a rapidly rising star in the music world, but he was born and raised in Cincinnati. He is the son of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra violinist Gerald Itzkoff and CCO principal violist Heidi Yenney.

During the past year, it sometimes seemed the younger Itzkoff had taken up residence on nearly all the nation’s music calendars. He played in and around New York City. He performed in Boulder, in Virginia, in San Jose and in Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. He was in Boston, too, as a new member of the American Modern Opera Company.

As soon as he finishes in Cincinnati – he’s playing the Elgar Concerto in E minor, incidentally – he will head to a monthlong residency at Yellowbarn, a center for chamber music in Putney, Vermont.

It’s a dizzying schedule. But for all the superlatives surrounding Itzkoff, one of the rumors about his Aug. 4 concert isn’t correct. This isn’t his CCO debut. That took place a decade ago, when he was 15.

“I was just a kid,” said Itzkoff. Sprawled on an enormous couch in his mother’s airy Over-the-Rhine condo, he still looks kid-like. Tall and gangly and languidly lolling around, he presents an image like one of those high-end fashion spreads in Vanity Fair. He has just had a haircut, so nothing’s out of place, except for an unruly shock of blond hair that hangs down slightly, a hint there might be a bit of a bad boy inside this otherwise angelic-looking young man.

Maybe it’s just part of the image he’s developed. Or perhaps his stylist – a long-ago babysitter – is offering an insight into the boy she knew, one who couldn’t decide between focusing on life as a cellist or immersing himself in a skateboarder culture with its inherent risks.

Whatever the rationale, it’s a compelling look. He looks super in an expensive suit, but you just know that well-worn skate beanie is tucked away in his closet.

On nurturing and letting go

“I’ve always been an independent person,” he said. He launched into an explanation of why he chose the often grueling life of a freelance musician instead of aiming for the relative security a full-time orchestral position can bring. “I grew up around these orchestras, so I’ve seen a little bit of the wear an orchestra can put on a person,” he said.

Perhaps he’s referring, at least in part, to his father, who has been with the CSO 25 years.

Gerry Itzkoff always supported his son’s decision to become a musician. He probably didn’t push as hard as Yenney did. She made sure all three kids were studying violin by age 3 (or maybe it was 4, depending on whose memory is most accurate), but Gerry made sure Coleman was always around music.

“Our contribution to his development as a musician was simply having string quartet rehearsals in our home every week for years, which generally began at bedtime,” Gerry wrote in an email. Dad tried not to meddle too much with musical interpretations or coaching. Coleman had teachers for that.

“As he progressed, it was hard to resist talking to him about the difficulties of the business,” Gerry wrote, “but I pretty much held my tongue. Really, we just tried to teach him how to practice by himself and to use his own innate ability to concentrate.”

Coleman absorbed it all. The steady stream of musician friends in the family’s Clifton home offered plenty of opportunity to watch and to listen. When it came time to choose a career path, being a freelancer appealed to him. Besides the independence, it brings a measure of satisfaction to his lust for travel and collaboration.

“I don’t really crave stability right now,” said Coleman. “I’m embracing the chaos of a freelance career as much as possible, and it’s opened some incredible doors and opportunities for me.”

He rattles off a list of particularly rewarding achievements: High-profile performances and prize-winning competitions. The extraordinary four-year loan of a cello made by Carlo Antonio Testore in 1740.

His mother interrupts.

“Did you return that?” she asks. She’s not exactly reproaching him, but her tone is a practiced one. 

“Yes, I did,” Coleman replies.

“Okay,” she responds.

That dynamic replayed several times during our conversation. Yenney is an intensely attentive parent. Coleman refers to her as a “momager,” his blend of mom and manager.

It gets on his nerves occasionally, but then that’s standard for parents and children. In the end, their relationship has helped shape his career into an immensely successful one.

It did have its bumpy moments, though.

Heidi Yenney and Coleman Itzkoff (photo by Tina Gutierrez)

Heidi Yenney and Coleman Itzkoff (photo by Tina Gutierrez)

A tough choice

“At a certain point, when I was younger, I kind of lost interest,” Coleman said. He pauses for a moment, then rephrases. “Not ‘lost interest,’ but I was leading a double life as a … as a kid, as a skateboarder and as a miscreant, and they had to pull me back from that and say, ‘Enough of the skateboarding.’ ”

“Well, he was going to hurt himself,” Yenney said. She recounts a time when he took a tumble while skateboarding within view of the house. Moments later, he went inside and applied ice to his hand.

“He opened up the Dayton Philharmonic season when he was 16,” said Yenney. “That’s when I told him he had to stop skateboarding. He couldn’t afford to hurt his wrist.”

“At a certain point, when I was younger, I kind of lost interest,” Coleman said. He pauses for a moment, then rephrases. “Not ‘lost interest,’ but I was leading a double life as a … as a kid, as a skateboarder and as a miscreant, and they had to pull me back from that and say, ‘Enough of the skateboarding.’ ”

An earlier injury had already affected a performance. He was 14 and scheduled to appear on NPR’s “From the Top.”

“A week before the performance, I dislocated my pinkie,” said Coleman. “I was skateboarding, of course. I didn’t tell anyone at the time, but I had to change all the fingering so I wouldn’t have to use my pinkie when I played.”

That turned out to be a major turning point. He was, he admits, resentful of the parental intrusion. He still loves skateboarding and occasionally hops on board for a not-too-crazy ride.

“Up till then, my motivation for playing had always come from my parents,” he said. “I knew I liked it. I would go to summer camps and play with people my own age, and there were moments where I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ But when I had to give up skateboarding – and the friends – it was really difficult. It was a culture I loved.”

The family business

The Itzkoff-Yenney clan was never destined to be a family-ensemble sort of group. Coleman may have entered the family business, but his siblings – Jules, now 27, and Lucy, 24, bailed on the violin life.

“My parents just threw me into music before I even knew what was going on,” Lucy recalled.

She liked music, but she had no interest in the classical life. She was more into soccer and swimming. The musical life she loved most was playing in the pit orchestra for shows at Walnut Hills High School. Even that couldn’t hold her. In ninth grade, she left the pit to go onstage as an Oompa-Loompa in “Willy Wonka.”

“As the baby of the family, I got away with everything,” Lucy said. “But it was a curse, too, because I had two strong, extremely talented older brothers. Sometimes you feel like you’re living in the shadow. It’s like being a backup singer your whole life.”

Today, she works in a Chicago bank. Yenney jokingly refers to her as the “black sheep” of the family.

“No,” said Coleman. “I think she’s more like the white sheep in a family of black sheep.”

Jules’ exit from music had its own set of bumps.

“I think my mom was pretty upset when I decided to quit playing violin,” he said, speaking by phone from Disney Television, where he is an illustrator. “I don’t remember my dad being as upset. But I really couldn’t stand it – the sound of that small violin drove me crazy. My mom tried to get me to play other things. I played drums for a few years. I took clarinet lessons, as well.”

In the end, music gave way to the visual arts. Yenney engineered a “retrospective” for him at Sitwell’s when he was 7.

“I’m happy to have been pushed in that direction,” said Jules. “I think they had the philosophy that you identify what your kid is into and then just push in that direction.”

All in all, it seems to have worked. Coleman and Jules are settled into highly skilled arts-related careers. Lucy is considering a switch to culinary school.

“We were just kids when we started out,” said Gerry, referring to his and Yenney’s early parenting days. “We had no clue and no expectations.”

And as for Coleman and his ascendant career?

“I don’t think a thing has changed,” said Gerry. “There’s always been love and respect. I’m just thrilled and relieved that he’s a happy man.”

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