Cellist Thomas Mesa is our guest artist for our November 12-14 concerts, Grand Panorama, performing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor. Learn more about him and his profession in this exclusive Q&A!

When did you first start playing the cello?

I was 12 years old.

What stories come to mind that led to your choice to make music your career?

Many stories come to mind but one that really sticks out was that I was never forced to practice.  I always wanted to just play the instrument all the time and I never felt like I was doing it as a chore.  I think that led to really spending lots of time with the instrument and getting better by listening and trying to imitate the sounds of Jacqueline du Pré and Yo-Yo Ma.

Who was most influential in shaping your talent and inspiring your passion for music?

This is a very tough question and it really doesn’t have one answer.  There were many people along the way who were inspiring to me and that includes my teachers (Mark Churchill, Wells Cunningham, Ross Harbaugh, Timothy Eddy, Hans Jensen, and Julia Lichten) but also great performers who had sounds I wanted to create myself.  I’m also inspired by story-telling and music to me is about creating adventures that feel really connected to who we are and our collective experience.

You recently received the MPower Artists Grant from the Sphinx Organization, an organization focused on transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. Can you tell us more about this organization and your performance in Madison with The Sphinx Virtuosi?

The Sphinx Organization has been an incredible support system for my career thus far and that all started when I won their competition in 2016.  There are so many ways to get involved with them, the competition being one major way, but they’re also creating leaders in arts administration, taking grant proposals, and there’s a convention every year in Detroit called Sphinx Connect that brings together hundreds of leaders in the arts to share and exchange knowledge about everything in our industry.  The MPower Artists Grant is one of these support tentacles, I was granted around $20,000 to record an album with pianist Michelle Cann, the newest faculty member at Curtis Institute of Music.  It’s a “Call for Scores” which essentially is a competition for composers to submit their works for cello/piano and we choose 5 or 6 to be recorded, produced, and released on all streaming platforms.

How has your diverse background influenced your career as a musician? Can you talk more about the importance of diversity in music?

Being half Cuban and growing up in that culture, I find that I get excited by music that reminds me of my childhood.  Like anyone would, right?  The passion and lyricism of Latin-American music is incredibly attractive, especially with the sound vehicle of the cello!  One of the incredible things that the Sphinx Organization has done in the last couple of decades has been to give exceptional training to Black and Latin American musicians so they can populate orchestras that have been traditionally (almost) 100% white.  The population of the U.S. is almost 20% Hispanic and 15% Black, so why shouldn’t our orchestras, conductors, arts administrators, etc. reflect the same demographics?  Sphinx has been a huge help to make that happen.

How would you describe Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor that you will be playing with the Madison Symphony Orchestra at our November concerts?

I look at this piece as a 45-minute summary of someone’s lifetime.  It has absolutely everything you can imagine…youthful confidence, exciting dances, deep sadness, tragedy, heartbreak, loneliness…there’s no piece like it.  It’s truly perfect and not to mention the glorious and stunning ending.

After being forced to suspend live performances for over a year, what has it been like to finally return to the stage this season?

Of course this was a very hard time for musicians but the reason why we create music is to share it with audiences and the biggest tragedy was not being able to do that.  I always felt the best part about working intensely on a piece of music is knowing you’re creating a story for the audience – there was real purpose.  Virtual concerts were OK…but not the same.  The greatest part of returning has been seeing the crowds.  Not just from the stage but also groups going to pre-concert or post-concert dinners, seeing old friends who were holed up for a while, and just talking face to face with old friends.

You performed with MSO’s Principal Organist, Greg Zelek, a classmate of yours at Juilliard, in our 18-19 season. Can you talk about your time with Greg at Juilliard and what it was like to take the stage with him in 2019 in Madison?

Greg is a great friend/colleague and I’m so glad that we’ve found opportunities to work together because we share lots of similar ideas about music.  I remember rehearsing for that concert and feeling like we were just having a great time.  Our concert in Madison felt a little like we were running the program in someone’s living room and letting the audience into that experience!

You recently released Division of Memory, an album described as a “reflection through contemporary cello works”, on all streaming platforms. Can you tell us what the recording process was like?

This “Call for Scores” was similar to the current one that I’m doing with Sphinx but it was open to everyone of all nationalities.  This CD is going to be available in the lobby during intermission where I’ll be signing them as well.  The recording process for that album was incredibly exciting on one side but also very long.  It was exciting to have the composers on a zoom call while I was recording and working with them to make sure everything was the way they wanted it.  But also we had to reschedule the final session about 3 times because of COVID-related issues.  It was frustrating but we finally got it done and I think the product, as many of you will hear, was beautiful and interesting.

This fall you became the cello professor at The Conservatory of Music at Purchase College (SUNY). What has your experience as a professor been like?

Well, I simply love teaching and so my natural reaction this question is that I’ve been really loving it.  My students are talented and I’m grateful to be there.  As a touring musician, it has been difficult to find the in-person time on a weekly basis – in fact it’s been impossible.  But the students are very understanding and we sometimes have virtual lessons that is helpful to their progress.

In 2021 you will be touring at major venues across the U.S., curating and performing chamber music programs, recording two albums for new music, and teaching as a cello professor. How do you balance all of these commitments?

Lots of coffee, planning, and emails. 🙂

What do you enjoy doing outside of your career as a musician?

Tennis, exploring whichever town I’m in, finding good food, meeting new people, and keeping pretty physically active.

What artists have been inspiring you recently?

I’m constantly inspired by Yo-Yo Ma and Jacqueline du Pré.  They’re the ultimate musicians in my book.