There was a time when Sophie Shao’s cello was bigger than her.
Today, Shao can do more than contend with her instrument and already has serenaded the community, just recently at the historic Gund House on West 247th Street.
Shao is a musical talent to be reckoned with, and the Bronx Arts Ensemble — the performance group that gave Shao the opportunity — couldn’t agree more.
“We hope we’ll be doing even more with Sophie in the future,” said David Nussenbaum, the ensemble’s executive director. “Actually there are a growing number of professional musicians that are moving to the Bronx. And there is a whole community of exceptional musicians that are moving to the Bronx from Manhattan.”
Before Shao moved across the street from Manhattan College, she lived in the Upper West Side. An opportunity to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra pulled her to Washington, D.C., forcing her to give up her Manhattan apartment. When it was time to move back to the New York, she found a home in Riverdale.
Her first performance with the ensemble was at Gund, 690 W. 247th St. Like most homes in Riverdale, this is a building with some historical significance. Gund House, however, once belonged to the Dodge family.
The Dodges were longtime Riverdalians, and Grace Hoadley Dodge created a lending library in the 19th century that eventually grew to become the Riverdale Neighborhood House today.
“Some people enjoy going to a concert in a home,” Nussenbaum said. “We give concerts in churches and libraries and all sorts of different venues.”
Performing in a home is always an interesting experience for Shao. The key, however, is concentration.
“Houses are unique places,” Shao said. “They are like just more intimate, and so the scale of the things that you do can be smaller and it’s not like a concert stage. In homes, people are sitting right next to you, so it’s important to focus, and you just feel the presence of the audience more closely.”
Violinist Joyce Hammann and pianist Adrienne Kim accompanied her. As a child, Shao’s mother used to help her practice by playing on the piano.
Shao picked up her cello when she was 6, yet there was a time when she tried to quit playing. She credits her cellist teacher for encouraging her to keep going.
Shao graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, later graduated from Yale University.
She has now played the cello for 36 years, and teaches string technique at the University of Connecticut.
“Teaching has always required effort,” Shao said. “I think it’s trying to understand what the students need. And you can’t follow right away what a student needs, and so you have to reach a relationship. Sometimes you don’t get it right away, and it’s through that process you learn your strengths and weaknesses. But in art, you can’t always tell.”
The Houston native is even taking a stab at teaching in her new borough. She will share her knowledge with the Lehman College Orchestra on April 10 in a master class. Then on May 15, she will play with her students.
Shao took her talents all the way and even helped to sell out her first show with the Bronx Arts Ensemble.
“We were in the bittersweet position of having to turn people away, ” Nussenbaum said. “We can’t remember a time we had to do that. It’s kind of sad, but in a way, it’s a good problem to have.”
As the ensemble’s presence grows in the Bronx, Nussenbaum intends to keep the momentum going. The ensemble will host two more concerts in private homes, and is planning an April show featuring the lead trombone player in the metropolitan opera.
Shao was happy to perform with Bronx Arts Ensemble, and hopes to further her musical journey with the group.
“I think it went well,” she said about the Gund House performance. “It is always spontaneous and there are always things you are creating, and I thought it went pretty beautifully.”
As an arts educator, Shao takes her duty to heart.
“I think in any field we want people to get to know our work,” she said. “Also I think art funding has been cut, and for us to be able to offer it means that people have exposure to something that isn’t commercially produced.
“It shows students different kinds of opportunities. And what they can do with their hands and what they can do for fun. And that it can become serious, too.”