By David Templeton | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Thomas Mesa began playing the cello in middle school, when he was 12. Now 30, and a highly sought-after soloist and educator, he acknowledges that he was a late starter compared to many of his contemporaries, but the Florida-raised musician also knows how close he came to never becoming a cellist at all. His initial musical inclination, as a young middle-school student, was to study the drums.
But then a small clerical error changed everything.
“What it all came down to,” Mesa says with a laugh, speaking on the phone from his home in Miami, “is that I didn’t know the difference between ‘band’ and ‘orchestra,’ and I accidentally picked the wrong class. I remember walking in, seeing all those stringed instruments, and being so mad. I had no idea what I was doing, and yes, I really do realize it’s a very non-romantic introduction to the whole cello world. But I wasn’t allowed to switch out once I’d signed up for the class, so that’s how it all started. A friend played the cello, so I picked the cello and just went with it from there.”
Since then, Mesa has gone from accidentally choosing orchestra to becoming an undeniable rising star, recognizably one of the most accomplished, magnetic, and entertainingly unpredictable classical musicians of the early 21st century.
After studying for a time with Wells Cunningham, the young Mesa moved on to working with Mark Churchill at Walnut Hill, Timothy Eddy at Juilliard, and Hans Jorgen Jensen at Northwestern. Currently Mesa is pursuing his doctorate at Manhattan School of Music, where he’s working with Julia Lichten. Along the way, he’s picked up a number of prestigious awards, including the first-place prize in the 2016 Sphinx Competition, the Thaviu Competition for String Performance in Chicago, and the Alhambra Orchestra Concerto Competition in Miami.
Professionally, Mesa has appeared as a soloist with many orchestras and ensembles and at festivals and concert series all over the world, including an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of the annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular. He’s performed with the Cleveland Symphony and at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in New York, the Mainly Mozart Festival, the Heifetz Institute, and other storied venues.
Along the way, he’s formed some impressive connections: touring with Itzhak Perlman, performing as a member of the St. Petersburg Piano Quartet, and playing on the 2017 album Bonhoeffer, which was nominated for a Grammy. He regularly performs with the celebrated pianist Ilya Yakushev.
As a teacher—especially during the pandemic shutdowns that have pushed distance learning into the front lines of education—Mesa has become highly sought after as an instructor and is currently working in conjunction with several universities and schools around the country.
And his list of current and upcoming projects is staggering.
We’ll get back to that.
Though Mesa’s performances of the classics have earned him wide acclaim, it’s the more experimental, contemporary collaborations that he is becoming increasingly well known for. So of course, he’s become accustomed to fielding questions about which he prefers: new, unfamiliar, boundary-testing works or the old, familiar, and well-established material.
“I’ve had several years now of playing ‘the canon,’ and I still love it,” Mesa says. “Those pieces are masterworks that will survive for many years to come. Everyone agrees. But the more I play these concerts and am asked to perform these concerti, the more I am compelled to understand my role in all of this. Especially now, when we have a world that’s been turned upside-down in so many ways, I want to create a space in a concert hall that is reflective of these issues. With the growing political divide, the protests, and the pandemic, people really need something different inside the concert hall, something that is relevant to what’s going on in the world right now.”
Mesa points out that, from the beginning of his performing career, he has always included contemporary works alongside the classics. “When you are playing something that is so fresh and so new, you are looking at it without any biases whatsoever,” he says. “You get to work in a place where it’s all about your imagination, because you have no previous recordings or history to skew your expectations and understanding of the piece. That’s such a creative and stimulating place to be.”
“I don’t want to play anything the same way two times in a row.”
That sense of discovery and invention can then be brought back, Mesa says, to an artist’s own interpretations of classic works. “Once I experienced the freedom of exploring something brand new, I wanted that same feeling whenever I returned to the classics,” he says. “Sometimes people do, over time, become bored with their own interpretations of the classics, because those interpretations often never change. For me, I don’t want to play anything the same way two times in a row. I just want to be constantly challenging myself to make new discoveries and constantly be reimagining how I play something. Otherwise, I’m going to fall asleep. I’m always looking for the new, even, I think, in these great works that are actually really old.”
In other words, the newer works that Mesa explores have a bigger influence on how he plays the classics than the classics have on how he approaches his newer work. Which brings us back to Mesa’s current list of ambitious projects and collaborations, beginning with “Songs of Isolation,” three new short works for solo cello, based on the pandemic and people’s experiences of sheltering and social distance. Supported by the Astral Artist Micro-Commissioning Fund, Mesa has selected a trio of composers: Andrea Casarrubios, Stephanie Ann Boyd, and Carlos Simon.
“All together, the three pieces will be something everyone will be able to relate to,” Mesa says. “We have been alone for so long, I want to get people’s perspective and experience of that, and I’m hoping that well after this whole thing is done, this project will be a powerful, poignant, and bittersweet thing to look back on.”
As horrible as the pandemic has been worldwide, Mesa admits that he is able to take encouragement from one thing. “At least some beautiful music is coming out of it,” he says, adding that the first composition he’s received, from Casarrubios, is titled “Seven.”
“It’s a tribute to the essential workers, people who’ve suffered and lost their lives, and it alludes to the time, 7:00 pm, when people in New York City clap together from out of their windows,” he explains. “It’s a gorgeous piece—Andrea is a cellist herself—and it’s just a beautiful exploration of connection during isolation. I’ve never heard a more beautiful solo cello piece. I can’t wait to play it.”
The other pieces, including Boyd’s “Alleluia Olora,” had not been delivered at the time of this conversation, but Mesa says he expects similarly powerful works, as the topic of isolation and distance is such a common thread throughout the community of musicians he considers his family.
“It’s been so tough on so many musicians,” he says, adding that many of his colleagues are suffering financial setbacks and depression, and some are even choosing to leave the profession, at least temporarily. “I’m not going to lie,” he goes on, “though I’m excited by many different things and I’m keeping busy, there have been some rough moments where I’ve seriously thought, ‘I suppose I could go into real estate!’ But in all reality, I feel like I’m born to do what I am doing, and that thought helps me get through difficult times like this.”
Though the future is uncertain, another work Mesa hopes to premiere as soon as possible—January 2021, ideally—is violinist-composer Jessie Montgomery’s “Divided,” commissioned by Sphinx, Carnegie Hall, and New World Symphony.
“Jessie is such an amazing composer. I approached her and asked her to write something for me,” Mesa says, “and what we wanted to do, we decided, was something that would be an expression of what the world has been going through, in terms of all the divisions and the social frustration and conflicts that every single person has been feeling the last several years, no matter what ‘side’ they are on, whatever that means. I wanted a piece for cello and string orchestra that expresses that feeling. I received it in June, and it’s astonishing.”
“Division of Memory,” an upcoming recording project, is the result of a call for scores of new works for solo cello or cello and piano from the Parma Recordings label in New Hampshire. “It’s a cool thing, because Parma gets their network of composers all riled up and submitting scores,” explains Mesa. “We ended up with 200 submissions, and they whittled it down to 20. It was pretty exciting. I listened to them, played through some of them, and then we brought the number down to five.”
Halfway through recording the pieces, he adds, the pandemic closures happened.
“I was going to have a release party in New York, and that didn’t happen because everything started shutting down, but it is going to happen,” Mesa says. “The thought behind the title, ‘Division of Memory,’ is that I wanted to divide our memories into different categories, depending on the ideas that were being expressed on the album. What I came up with was three categories, beginning with ‘Roots,’ based on our memories of family traditions and memories of formative experiences.”
That category includes two pieces for solo cello, “Carolina’s Jig” by Lydia Jane Pugh and “Echoes in Life” by Elizabeth Start.
“Then there’s ‘Trauma’—the negative experiences that affect who we are and how we relate to others,” he goes on. “The two pieces we have there are Jonathan Chenette’s ‘Elegy and Affirmation,’ about the trauma of 9/11, and George Holloway’s ‘Novella,’ about the trauma of a really bad relationship breakup.”
And finally, there’s the category “Revelations.” The single piece with that classification is a suite for solo cello by Ben Yee-Paulson, a recent graduate from NEC. “It’s a real celebration of life and a total celebration of the cello,” Mesa says. “The whole project, all five pieces together, ended up being much more cohesive when placed under those categories than they might have been if just tossed randomly on a recording. It’s been a very fun project to put together.”
“I’m realizing more and more that my role as a musician is definitely to create new things.”
And then there’s Mesa’s other recording project—the only one not to feature new music—a collaboration with his frequent performance partner, pianist Yakushev. The recording is of Claude Bolling’s “Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano Trio” and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano.
“Our plan was to do a series of 27 recitals,” Mesa says, “and possibly record a live concert of those pieces.” As is the case with everything else, all of that is on hold till further notice.
Taken together, these projects are a perfect representation of Mesa’s position as an enthusiastic promoter and creator of new music—who deliberately still keeps one foot in the world of the classics. “Yes, whether it’s my own drive to make these kinds of commissions, or whether they come from other sources, I’m realizing more and more that my role as a musician is definitely to create new things,” he says. “I’ve found that to be an especially satisfying process, and an important one, as we all look for ways to express our feelings and understand what’s going on in the world today.
“And, yes, at the same time, as much as I love new works, I will continue to play the classics, because I truly love them and always will.”