Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Eliesha Nelson's CD 'Quincy Porter: Complete Viola Works' Highlights Overlooked American Music

[Quincy Porter, Complete Viola Works; Eliesha Nelson, viola; John McLaughlin Williams, violin, piano, harpsichord; Northwest Sinfonia, John McLaughlin Williams, conductor; Dorian Recordings DSL 90911 (73:47) (2009)]

The African American violist Eliesha
Nelson is principal soloist on a forthcoming CD, “Quincy Porter, Complete Viola Works"; Dorian Recordings DSL 90911 (2009). We hope readers will find it as informative and fascinating as we did! This is Part I of the interview:

If I could start by asking where you were born?
Alaska! Actually I was born on Eielson Air Force Base, even though my birth certificate doesn't really say that. I kind of came quickly and my father was with the military and was stationed there.
You stayed there while you were growing up, right?
Yes, I was born and raised there, so I didn't really leave Alaska until I started my studies. I went to the Cleveland Institute of Music Young Artists Program when I was 16. That's basically when I left home. The town I grew up in was called North Pole. My parents soon after left Eielson for North Pole, which is right outside of Eielson Air Force Base. I usually don't tell people I'm from North Pole, Alaska – too many jokes!
You said at 16 you said you went to the Cleveland Institute of Music?
The Young Artists Program.
Was that equivalent to prep school or college?
Yes, it's more like prep school. They have an agreement – the Program's still going on – they have an agreement with four of the local Cleveland private schools. So I went to Hathaway Brown for the morning and early afternoon to get my core classes. Then I would go to C.I.M. for theory and Dalcroze and lessons for all the music.
When did you start studying music, Eliesha?
When I was six.
What was your first instrument?
Violin. I started violin at six, then piano came at eight, and viola came at – I don't know what, like 22 or 23. Little bit late!
You're probably at least the third violist who has told me of making a transition from the violin.
Yes, it's pretty common. I think most professionals tend to switch a little bit earlier than in their twenties, but you know, it's very common.
Let's resume your explanation of your education after you went to Hathaway Brown and Cleveland Institute of Music.
I stayed at C.I.M. for my Bachelor's. Then I had a Fulbright Grant and I studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London with György Pauk, wonderful Hungarian violinist, and on coming back to the United States I had a great year in London but didn't really think ahead. One year is rather short! I ended up eventually finding my way back to C.I.M., but on viola. I did two years, did a Master's in viola, and then ended up winning a job in the Florida Philharmonic, which unfortunately doesn't exist any more, but I was their Acting Principal Violist.
That must have been quite an accomplishment for someone starting out?
Yes, I guess. It really is quite difficult to win a job. I was in Florida for one year, and I won a position with Detroit and three weeks later won a position with Cleveland.
You didn't actually come to Detroit then?
No, I didn't.
When was it that you were in Florida?
Gee, that was 1999 to 2000, just one season.
Then you had the position in Cleveland. Is that the same position that you hold today?
I think I read that you were pleased to be in one of the “Top Five” orchestras in the United States?
It does seem to have a high profile.

Well absolutely, it's definitely considered one of the best orchestras worldwide and we do tour quite a bit to Europe and the typical things that a major orchestra does. I get to work with really wonderful musicians, people who really strive to make music at the highest level.
How did you become interested in the music of Quincy Porter?
When I first won the job in Cleveland, my friend whom I think you know, John McLaughlin Williams...
I certainly do!
Yes, he suggested that I make a recording and I thought, “I've been playing viola for three years, I just won this wonderful job and I don't know the repertoire, so that's a nice idea but not now.” Then finally I started doing more research with viola repertoire, finding lots of really wonderful pieces written for the instrument. So I thought, well for a recording I would really like to do something of one composer and preferably American because I just feel a lot has been overlooked in American music. So that was basically why I ended up with Porter.
Wasn't he also associated with Cleveland?
He was! He taught at the Institute of Music, in the Twenties I believe. He was a member of a quartet, and he taught on the faculty of C.I.M.
This recording is entirely of viola works. Are any of them premieres?
Some of them I believe are. A lot of them haven't been recorded in a while. For example, the Viola Concerto which is sort of the meat and potatoes of the recording, I think there's only been one previous recording and that was done in the Fifties. Some of the smaller pieces like “Poem” and “Blues Lointains,” I don't think those have been recorded.
The “Concerto for Viola and Orchestra,” I believe, is the first piece?
It was composed in 1948?
I believe so, yes.
I have to say that you landed with a label, Dorian, which is distributed by the largest classical music label in the world!
Yes, I'm very pleased by that! I'm very grateful to be with Dorian. I'm really happy they were interested in the project, interested in the music, they really liked it and yes, I'm really happy that they decided to take the project.
So this is a four-movement concerto. Is it the only work on which the Northwest Sinfonia is involved?
Yes, yes it is.
Where is that?
They're a Seattle Orchestra. Yes John, who is a good friend of mine, as I asked him to sort of wear many hats for this CD.
If you could just remind us what those are?
Oh, sure. Actually he went to C.I.M. as well. We both went there at the same time. So I've known him for many years, and we both played violin at C.I.M. So of course when it came to doing the violin and viola duo I asked him to do that, and also he's an incredible pianist and I asked him to serve as pianist and harpsichordist as well on the recording.
On the front of the recording it looks like you're walking on water, or else maybe in water?
Yes, I'm in water!
I know that your husband's research sometime involves Lake Erie.
That's true, it does!
That's not Lake Erie you're in, is it?
It actually is!
Yes, I have a friend, Mathew Gregor, who does a lot of film work and I told him – this is about a year ago when I was towards the end of everything with the recording – and he asked “Oh, well what are you doing for the art work?” And I said “Well, I haven't quite gotten there yet.” And he suggested the woman who made the dress and did my hair and makeup and whatnot, and the photographer, Darryl Strong. So they sort of came up with this idea of my being in the water, and having a dress that was billowy enough so that, however the waves would catch the dress, you could sort of see that kind of movement.
Does that represent something, or is that associated with some mythical figure?
Not really, but it is kind of interesting that Quincy Porter did a lot of his composition around Squam Lake. I actually believe “On Golden Pond” was filmed there as well, which is kind of funny! But yes, that's a very loose connection!


Taylor V said...

What a fantastic interview! I always find it interesting when musicians and artists hail from seemingly remote places. Somehow it adds a bit of mystery. Congrats on releasing your album!

Unknown said...

Quincy Porter was a close family friend. He and his wife, Lois, used to play quartets with my father, and I played one public performance with him as well (I'm a violinist). He was also my wife's composition teacher at Yale School of Music. I have some pictures of him and stories about him that I'd like to share with Eliesha Nelson or anyone else who is interested. You can reach me at
Aaron Krosnick
13734 Bermuda Cay Court
Jacksonville, FL 32225
(904) 221-2805