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February 17, 2014IM -
Talking with Eliesha Nelson, her warm personality immediately comes across, thanks largely to her fantastic laugh. She laughs often, and the sound is full, rich, and hearty-interestingly, all words often used to describe the sound of the viola. Some people observe that a person’s character can be related to the instrument they play, so perhaps Nelson was always destined to be a violist. But, through her early 20s, violin was the instrument of choice for the 36-year-old member of Local 4 (Cleveland, OH). Then, she simply decided it was time for a change.
It’s not unusual for a violist to have started out with the violin, but it is rather unusual to make the switch as late in one’s musical training as Nelson did. In 1997, the talented musician, who was born and raised in North Pole, Alaska, already had two degrees in violin performance: a bachelor’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music and an Artistic Diploma from the Royal Academy of Music, where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Plus, she had started a master’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin.
Even though it would seem that Nelson was on a clear path to a successful career as a violinist, she admits that she got to a point where she felt a bit stalled. “I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go, so I decided to explore something new,” she says. “And that something new was viola.”
Nelson dabbled with the viola while studying in Austin, and ultimately, the lure of the new instrument was strong enough to convince her to return to her Cleveland alma mater, where she would complete her graduate work in viola performance. Undoubtedly, it turned out to be the right choice, and not just because of the excellent jobs-first, with the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, and a year later, with The Cleveland Orchestra-that she won straight out of school.
“I love the sound of the viola, and I love all of the repertoire for it that I keep finding,” Nelson explains. “There’s all of this music- music that people don’t play because it’s out of print or hard to find-that I keep on looking up and discovering. It’s really fantastic.”
Not surprisingly, when Nelson decided to pursue a recording project, she wanted to use repertoire that was outside the norm. “First I thought, what do I want to do? Bach cello suites? Hindemith sonatas? But they’ve been done, and quite a bit. And if someone wants to listen to those pieces, they’re going to go to a name that they’ve heard of, not necessarily Eliesha Nelson,” she adds with a laugh.
Nelson decided to establish her own name by reviving the under-the-radar music of 20th century American composer Quincy Porter. Having been a violist himself, Porter composed enough music for the instrument to fill an entire CD, a rarity among most composers, and an aspect that appealed immensely to Nelson. “That was kind of the clincher,” she says.
When she set to work learning Porter’s music-hauntingly beautiful, open, and full of long, swooping lines-she found a new sense of freedom in exploring something that didn’t come with precedents for how it should be played.
“With the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, for example, there are so many traditions of how you play that piece, and if you go against that, people will just say, oh it’s wrong! But when you’re playing something new, it’s more like, oh, that’s interesting, or hmm, I don’t like that so much,” Nelson explains. “I don’t really believe that there’s just right or wrong.” She pauses for a moment. “OK, maybe sometimes there is. There is a wrong way to play Mozart,” she laughs.
Nelson followed that same free-spirited approach in the studio, recording in large sections in order to keep the direction of phrases and intention of the music intact. “I think it’s nice to work with bigger chunks because that means that musically you get the bigger picture of what you want to come across,” she says. “You can get so picky and you can go crazy, trying to edit every single thing, every second. But that’s just not what I chose to do.”
What comes through in her recording is a very natural beauty, but that’s certainly not to say that her work isn’t polished. “I was always thinking of what I wanted to change-these subtle differences-and then I would go back into the studio to make things happen,” Nelson says, adding that she loved all of the detail in the sound that came through when working in a sophisticated, “decked out” studio.
Nelson herself was all decked out for the black-and-white music video that was filmed for the piece “Blues Lointains,” donning a 1940s hairdo and vintage costumes. “The piece was written in 1928, but it has kind of a film noir feel to it,” she explains. Now she’s just waiting to see the finished product.
“I had kind of forgotten about it, actually, over the past couple weeks,” she says. Nelson has been understandably preoccupied lately: she and her husband Jon, a theoretical biologist, welcomed their first child, William, in mid-October.
When her son is old enough, Nelson says that she would like him to start on piano, and maybe even violin. After all, it runs in the family. “It was kind of a tradition on my mother’s side that everyone had to play a musical instrument. It was considered part of being a well-rounded individual,” she says. “I just took it to a higher level than anyone prior.”
Nelson is grateful for the musical opportunities that she had growing up, and strives to give back to those less fortunate. Last year, she began sharing her gifts with elementary and middle school viola students at the Cleveland School for the Arts, Lower Campus, a specialty arts school where about 80% of the students are from families at, or below, the poverty level.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m not offering all that much, and then I have the experience of teaching these kids, who really seem to blossom, and be touched and expand,” she says. “It really makes me feel like music does have the same impact as things we consider our basic needs, like food and shelter.”
Because of her recent adjustment to motherhood, Nelson is taking this year off from teaching, and is also taking a little time off from The Cleveland Orchestra. That has really made her appreciate the benefits of AFM membership, without which, maternity leave might not be a reality.
“It’s always great to have a strong union to fight for our rights,” she says, noting that sometimes people take for granted just how far the rights of musicians have come. “The Cleveland Orchestra is going through negotiations, so now especially, I can see how these things are very important.”
Whether she’s rediscovering forgotten musical gems in a chamber music setting, shaping the minds of young musicians, or performing with one of the greatest US orchestras, Nelson can sum up what she loves about her career with one simple statement. “It’s wonderful working with other musicians who care about making music at the highest level,” she says. “I mean, how can it get any better?” Really, it can’t.