Thursday, February 24, 2011

Plain Dealer: 'With bow in one hand, pacifier in another, Cleveland Orchestra violist stands out as both artist, mother'

[ABOVE: Eliesha Nelson with her son, William, and husband, Jon Cline, at the family's Cleveland home. Cline works at the University of Arizona in Tucson. BELOW: Violist Eliesha Nelson is already doing more than most people do in a lifetime. In addition to playing and touring with the Cleveland Orchestra, she's raising a toddler largely single-handedly and making recordings, the first of which just won a Grammy. (Scott Shaw, The Plain Dealer)]

Published: Tuesday, February 22, 2011
“CLEVELAND, Ohio -- As a black woman from North Pole, Alaska, violist Eliesha Nelson is by default one of the most distinctive members of the Cleveland Orchestra. She's also one of the busiest -- and one of the most extraordinary. Recently, Nelson set herself apart even further by making a Grammy Award-winning recording of Quincy Porter's viola music. Her debut album was nominated in four categories and won for its engineering. And if that weren't enough to make you feel like a slacker, consider this: Nelson is also what she calls a 'married single mother,' with a toddler at home and a husband working in Arizona. What's more, she just recorded a new disc.

"'Between my parents, I'm fairly disciplined,' said Nelson, the daughter of a teacher and an Air Force sergeant. 'That's how I got this project done.' Nelson may be a musical performer, but her life is an amazing balancing act. Even without her recording work, her juggling of orchestral and domestic duties would be remarkable. Most working parents can relate to parts of Nelson's life -- caring for a 16-month-old (William) while holding down a job entailing private practice, daytime rehearsals and evening performances. Also likely to be familiar is the environment at Nelson's Cleveland home, where stuffed animals and children's books occupy as much space as history texts and classical CDs.

“Far fewer have any notion of traveling the world with a toddler in tow, as Nelson, 37, does on a surprisingly regular basis. Like every member of the Cleveland Orchestra, Nelson spends a large part of her life in hotels, airplanes and buses. Thus has young William become a jet-setter. Already, he's visited Miami, New York, Japan, South Korea and a broad swath of Europe. He took his first steps last year in Lucerne, Switzerland. A full-time au pair and helpful relatives are her lifelines, and her husband, Jon Cline, comes to the rescue whenever he's home from his job as a research specialist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Cline is a trained musician whose mother is a former dean of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore (she was the first black dean at Peabody and, at the time, the only female dean of a major U.S. conservatory).

“Still, a nursing mother can stray only so far from her child. Then there's the sleep factor. Last month, on tour in Miami, the free time her colleagues in the orchestra had for running, playing golf and boating, Nelson used to take naps. When others were packing up clothes and instruments, she was reloading diaper bags and making sure not to leave behind any toys, supplies or bedtime stories. I can't believe I'm still alive,' Nelson said. 'Everything is about child care and work. There's no shopping or sightseeing. I don't have the time or energy to do anything else. It's more difficult than most people realize. It's hard on the body.'

“How Nelson arrived at this point, and a seat at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, is no less incredible. Most musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra have a story to tell, but none has one like hers. 'I'm just so proud of what she's done,' said principal violist Robert Vernon, Nelson's former teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees. 'She was educated here and continues to give back and represent everything that's great about Cleveland.'

“Viola entered her life almost by chance, during a performance at CIM's Encore School for Strings. Vernon heard Nelson play and suggested she reconsider the viola she'd sampled in Texas. Many young artists would have shrugged off the idea, but Nelson took him up on it, re-enrolling at CIM and entering Vernon's studio for a master's degree in viola. 'She entrusted her talent to me and followed through,' Vernon said. 'It's a credit to her that she was able to stand out. She didn't take anything for granted.' Astoundingly, two years later, on a viola borrowed from CIM, Nelson took an audition to be acting principal violist of the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra and won the job. Within a year, dying in Florida's heat, she went on to win positions with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra. She joined the latter in 2000 and quickly proved a valuable addition.”

“Fast-forward to 2007, when John McLaughlin Williams, a multitalented musician and friend from school, finally persuaded Nelson to make a recording. She'd held out because recordings are expensive, time-consuming ventures, and the subject has to be just right.” “Months of research later, Nelson and Williams settled on Quincy Porter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former teacher at CIM whose music for the viola was both compelling and little-known. Funding for the $75,000 project came mostly from their own pockets but also from a pool of Cleveland donors.”

“Life took another dramatic turn in January 2009. Just when it seemed her days couldn't get any fuller, Nelson learned she was pregnant. This would be her greatest project yet. Weight-lifting, reading and sewing, her nonmusical hobbies, would have to drop off her list of priorities.” “Luckily, the bulk of the work on Porter was already finished. She'd even posed for the album's cover photo, in Lake Erie, wearing a dress made by local designer Inda Blatch-Geib.”

“A big hit from the start
Then things really took off. Upon its release in September 2009, the Porter disc was an immediate success. Critics loved it, colleagues praised it, and it soon became one of the most popular recordings in the Luminus catalog.” “The four Grammy nominations -- for best chamber music performance, best instrumental soloist performance with orchestra, best engineered classical album and classical producer of the year -- came as the icing on an already rich cake.” “But her life isn't going back to normal. Not completely. Now she's putting the finishing touches on a second disc due out in the fall, an album of Russian viola sonatas with pianist Glen Inanga.

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