A conversation with cellist Jonah Ellsworth
SPM violinist Nada Batu caught up with the featured soloist Jonah Ellsworth in the NEC area after he wrapped up one of his many rehearsals to chat about SPM’s upcoming concert and his music.
Nada Batu: You’re playing the Schumann Cello Concert in A Minor with SPM next week. When did you begin playing this piece? Why this concerto?
Jonah Ellsworth: I started playing this piece in 2009. The Schumann Cello Concerto is one of the top 5 most played cello concertos so it wasn’t much of a choice whether I wanted to learn it or not (chuckle). If I wanted to be a cellist, I had to learn this concerto, and I was 15 at the time, and it was just a good time to start learning it.
NB: Did you love it when you began learning it, or did you grow to love it?
JE: I think I’ve always really liked it, almost loved it. Actually, I loved it and still do.
NB: Do you have a favorite recording of it? Favorite movement?
JE: I like Yo-Yo Ma’s recording, I like Rostropovich’s too. I’d say the second movement is my favorite.
NB: Have you played this with other orchestras before?
JE: I just performed this for the first time a week or so ago with the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida. It was good. The first rehearsal was shaky, but it got better. We did NOT have a lot of rehearsal time... I had a Wednesday rehearsal and a Thursday rehearsal, and then the concerts began that night. We had concerts on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, and it's stressful when you get on stage Friday night, and it’s the first time you’ve been on that stage all day. THAT is stressful. That is freaking stressful. In front of the whole audience…
NB: Did it go pretty well, and did you have a favorite night that you performed it?
JE: It went pretty well! It's hard to say which night was best… I think Thursday night, technique was the best because I was really worrying about everything, trying to play everything perfectly. But then, I’d say musically, Saturday was the best.
NB: So would you rank Schumann in your Top 10 Composers?
JE: Ooo composers. It's so hard to say. I’d say he’s up there. I gotta put Bach and Beethoven as the top two. Brahms can do it for me.
NB: Lot of Germans, eh?
JE: (laughs) Yeah but I also like Dvorak, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky. Bartok... I mean, those are the famous guys.
NB: What are your non-classical music favorite?
JE: Actually I tend to like hip-hop and rap.
NB: What’s your opinion on Kanye?
JE: I love Kanye, he’s a real musician! I mean, I guess he talks too much now, but whatever. I love The College Dropout and Late Registration albums, those are amazing.
NB: Any opinions on Kendrick Lamar?
JE: I’m not a big Kendrick fan actually. I like the hip-hop that was made around the year 2000, like Nelly, maybe even earlier, like Ludacris, Ginuwine (both break out in laughter).
NB: You ever try to rap?
JE: Can’t do it! I tried though… But yeah, it's pretty much what I’m listening to. Either that and hip-hop, or classical music.
NB: How’d you get into hip-hop and rap?
JE: I grew up in Cambridge, and it's pretty diverse. I was in the Cambridge Public School system, and my best friend in third grade was Jamaican, so I started listening to rap a lot.
NB: So the other two pieces on the SPM program are the orchestral digest of Die Meistersinger and the overture to The Magic Flute. Those are really different operatic works. Would you say you lean more towards one or the other? Wagner or Mozart?
JE: Usually, my first instinct is to lean more towards the more Romantic stuff, which would be Wagner, but sometimes I think the beauty in Mozart is stronger. They’re both beautiful! How can you compare Wagner and Mozart? They both make you cry.
NB: You’re playing in the Boston Trio?
JE: Yeah I just joined. We actually haven’t played a concert yet, but our first concert is March 13th. We’re playing Brahms, Mendelssohn, and probably something else.
NB: Have you been collaborating a lot with other musicians, or are you doing that less during the school year since you’re a full-time student at NEC? Any music festivals?
JE: Yeah, I do chamber all year round. Right now, I’m doing a piano trio. We’re playing at Jordan Hall at May 9. In the summer, I’m going to Marlborough, which is the chamber festival. I’ve played there for two summers now.
NB: What’s the farthest around the world your cello playing has taken you?
JE: Probably touring with Ben Zander’s group. We just went to Germany, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. It was really good, and he’s been really good to me with the solos. Before that, we went to Vienna, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. That was four years ago. So yeah, I’ve gone to Europe with cello, but I’ve never gone to Asia with cello. I want to though. I’d love to play concerts in Korea.
NB: Are you preparing any other pieces right now?
JE: Yeah, I’m preparing for a recital on February 25, and one piece I’ll be playing is the Prokofiev Cello Sonata in C Major, with a collaborative pianist at NEC.
NB: Do you think you’ll keep playing cello professional for as long as you can?
JE: Yeah I hope so! Well I don’t know how long my performing career will be, but hopefully once I’m done with that, I’ll start teaching somewhere on the East Coast, maybe in New York or Boston.
Jonah Ellsworth is the featured soloist in Symphony Pro Musica’s Jan 23rd and Jan 24th concerts, performing the Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor.