Like the music she plays, the passion one 15-year-old virtuoso exudes in relation to her art is emotionally touching and profound.

SofiaLee Lugo, a rising sophomore at Wilton High School, just won the inaugural Charles Ives Music Festival Concerto Competition through her considerable skills as a cellist. While she has extraordinary talent at her command as a player, the tremendous value she puts on the act of performing music as a way of creating an impact for an audience is another kind of music to one’s ears.

“If I’m playing, I’m hoping the people are enjoying it,” Lugo said. “And I’m enjoying it as well, so that we’re all having a fun time together.”

SofiaLee Lugo performs as the featured soloist at the WCYO concert in August 2023. Credit: contributed / Selina Santos

“Music in general, there’s so much to offer, different types of emotions,” she said. “You can get your hands on it and feel it … any type of music.”

Born in Chicago, Lugo came to Wilton before her first birthday. From her earliest memory classical music was a standard around her house. At age three, Lugo started at the Suzuki Music School, where she saw her first instruction and was offered a choice of what instrument to play.

“I think after hearing the cello I was just mesmerized,” she said. “I think it was a good pick … The tone is so rich.”

“It’s been a part of my life for so long, I think it’s like a friend to me,” she said, noting that she named her instrument Sheila. “I couldn’t not want to play it.”

An obviously proud fan, her mother, Selina Santos, noted the emotion and internal connections that music has fostered for her daughter.

“When I see and hear her, I see her heart,” she said. “She harnesses an emotion that is beyond just the notes on the page.”

“And it makes me emotional every time, because in my eyes she is understanding that music has the power to heal, to grow and touch parts of your soul you might not know exist,” she said.

Tackling Rachmaninoff — “I Play the cello like it’s crying.”

Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff is a great influence on Lugo, but his piece “Vocalise” has had a monumental impact on her life and performing. While one teacher had told her it was too difficult for her to learn — the kind of negative message of fear and insecurity that she said can sometimes adversely affect her and many other performers, as well as young people in general — another teacher ultimately helped her take it on at around age 12, despite the challenge it presented.

SofiaLee Lugo shows the well-worn copy of her favorite piece, “Vocalise,” by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Credit: Jarret Liotta / GOOD Morning Wilton.

Consequently, the experience — and the piece itself — has elevated not only Lugo’s playing but her belief in the power of music to heal and capture emotion, as well as to express herself.

“It’s like raw,” she said of “Vocalise.” “It’s like real human emotion … It was composed for voice, so it’s like someone crying and calling out … It’s amazing. I try to play the cello like it’s crying.”

Her success with the piece would ultimately bring her a chance to perform onstage at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in the fall of 2021, after it led to her receiving an honorable winner title with the American Protégé Music Competition.

“‘Vocalise’ by Rachmaninoff was a turning point for her …” Santos said. “That was the first time I had seen her spend hours practicing to conquer one piece, almost in an effort to prove she can play at that level, and she did it.”

Fear, Courage, and the Therapy of Playing

Sara Bennett Wolfe, director of the SBW Cello Studio in Norwalk, has taught Lugo for 11 years. She not only commends her student’s dedication and intense schedule of study — at least 90 minutes every day — but her personal strengths and attitude.

“SofiaLee’s courage is central to how successful she already is,” she said.

“She is fiercely passionate, proactive, and not afraid of failure,” she said. “She doesn’t hesitate to try out for any opportunity, regardless of the odds of winning.”

Ironically, Lugo is the first to note that fear can creep in to her mindset, along with feelings of unworthiness.

“It’s totally unhealthy, but it’s normal,” she said, commending the one instructor who taught her to treat herself like one would a good friend, with compassion and encouragement.

“Mentally you think everyone’s gonna hate you and they’re gonna boo you if you make a mistake,” Lugo said — something that is proven wrong to her time and time again.

Her mother noted the therapeutic aspect of her playing.

“In the many times I’ve spoken with her about her playing, her description is always this feeling (that) cello is her coping mechanism — a form of movement and expression,” she said. “It is her strength and confidence.”

“Music is My Whole Thing”

Lugo currently takes part in the Wilton High School orchestra, where she is the principal cellist and music historian for the group.

Malcolm Karlan, orchestra director for the school, called her an “incredible cellist.”

“She plays confidently and provides a model for her classmates to follow, while also encouraging her peers and bringing her good-natured sense of fun to class,” he said. “She is humble despite her talent, and is friendly to everyone.”

“Our orchestra is strong because of her,” he said, “and I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.”

The next stop on that journey is a big one: Lugo was just accepted into the advance music program at The Juilliard School, and will be attending on weekends in the fall.

As she’s only 15, however, Lugo is not entirely ready to answer the question of what’s further down the road, but it may not necessarily be a future solely dedicated to classical cello.

But she is open to where the melodies may lead her.

“I listen to a bunch of different music genres … I love The Beatles. They’re very inspirational. … Every day is music — practice or listen,” Lugo said, adding, “Music is my whole thing.”

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