Music by Living Composers with Tommy Mesa
Emi Ferguson: Hello, I'm Emi Ferguson sitting in for Bob Sherman. On today's show, we'll hear music from young artists who are championing music by living composers here on this edition of the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase.
Today you'll be hearing music written in the past 10 years and performed by some of the most exciting young performers, including cellist Tommy Mesa, who's joining me in the studio today. Tommy is the recipient of the 2023 Sphinx Medal of Excellence. In addition to winning first prize in the 2016 Sphinx Competition and the 2017 Astral Artists National Auditions, he has appeared as a soloist with major orchestras such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony, and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. But I first met him back when we were students together at the Juilliard School. Hi Tommy.
Tommy Mesa: Hi. Good to see you again, Emi.
Emi Ferguson: It's so fantastic to have you on today's show, and I'm really excited to get to hear more about the album that you released last year, Songs of Isolation. How did the album come to be?
Tommy Mesa: Yeah. You know, that that project, Songs of Isolation came about during the lockdown, and my thought was rather than just, you know, sitting around and hoping that things come to me, I'm going to go ahead and, and try to commission some friends of mine to write some music to essentially put all of the emotion and all of the frustration that we were all experiencing at the time, you know, as musicians.
I mean, there were so many people suffering during that time, but in the music world, it was the last thing to come back. Everything shut down and there was a lot that was being canceled for us. And so, professions essentially stopped. And composers, some of whom are, you know, my friends, I decided I just wanted to commission their music and to see what they had to say about how they felt during that time.
Emi Ferguson: So, it's so fun to talk about this album, Songs of Isolation. We're going to hear all three tracks from it. Could you tell us a little bit about the first track, "Seven"?
Tommy Mesa: So "Seven" is a tribute to the essential workers that really served tirelessly to make sure and to keep our communities healthy during the lockdown, during the rest of the pandemic.
And they continue to do so of course. And so, this is a tribute to all the work that they've done. And of course, the, the title "Seven" is a reference to the time, seven o'clock that people all around the world in their time zone would go to their balconies, go to their windows, uh, and they would clap for them.
They would clap for them as a unified community. And so, this whole piece embodies that sort of lament, but also incredible positivity during that time of better times to come.
Emi Ferguson: Wonderful. Let's hear Andrea Casarrubios's "Seven" for solo cello performed by Tommy Mesa.
MUSIC - Andrea Casarrubios: Seven
That was Tommy Mesa performing Andrea Casarrubios's solo, cello piece "Seven." Tommy, tell us a little bit about Carlos's piece and, and how that came to be.
Tommy Mesa: Yeah. Um, Carlos's work "Silence,” it's about five minutes long and, you know, it's filled to the brim with frustration. And this idea, uh, of silence comes in, you know, there's moments of pause, of course, and, and things that are kind of filled with energy and intent.
And I actually wanted to just read a sentence that he, he sent to me as like a sort of, uh, you know, purpose driven, uh, very simple little blip. Um, and he said here, uh, "my intention with this piece is to show the anguish, but also the calm of being in solitude."
Emi Ferguson: Hmm. Well, let's hear it. Here's Tommy Mesa performing Carlos Simon's "Silence" for solo cello from the album, Songs of Isolation.
MUSIC - Carlos Simon: Silence
That was Tommy Mesa performing "Silence" by Carlos Simon. Tommy's here in the studio with us today to talk about this album, Songs of Isolation and rounding out the album is Stephanie Ann Boyd's "Aleluia Olora." And can you tell us a little bit about that work?
Tommy Mesa: Yeah. Uh, this, this piece is really special, and I remember just going through it for the first time and thinking how, how interesting it is that all of these works embody a sort of universal anguish in the writing.
And this piece of course, really, really does that. And it's so beautifully built from start to finish. And one of the highlights, I think is, uh, you know, she was actually in Manhattan during the lockdown, and she was experiencing all of these things and one of the highlights was experiencing nature coming into New York City.
And the ending expresses that in the form of this robin's song. And I just wanted to read briefly a sentence that she wrote in her program note. "In May, I went up to the rooftop of my building to see the sunset, and then was met with a curious site: several neighbors were sitting or standing still as statues looking towards the southwest corner of the roof, watching and listening against the backdrop of a vivid dusk rainbow sky over the Hudson. A robin was standing on the topmost branch of an ornamental bush at the rooftop's corner singing its song with shocking gusto. Loudly without fear of its human audience. It repeated and repeated its melody. Pure joy seemed to burst from his broad orange bosom. This song from this small creature, somehow echoing with force off the walls of the surrounding Hell's Kitchen, apartment building monoliths."
Emi Ferguson: Wow. Well, here's Stephanie Ann Boyd's "Aleluia Olora" for solo cello, commissioned and performed by Tommy Mesa.
MUSIC - Stephanie Ann Boyd: Aleluia Olora
That was Tommy Mesa performing Stephanie Ann Boyd's c”Aleluia Olora” from his trilogy of commission pieces for solo cello Songs of Isolation. When we come back, we'll hear more from Tommy in addition to performances by the Westerlies, Conrad Tao, and Jordan Bak here on the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase.
You're listening to the Young Artists Showcase. I'm Emi Ferguson filling in for Bob Sherman. In June 2019, a pianist, two trumpeters, and two trombonists got together to make an album, not your typical chamber music combination. These young artists paired their acoustic instruments with digital processing and extended techniques that pushed the sonic boundaries of their instruments through improvisation.
I'm really excited to share this music from pianist Conrad Tao and brass band, The Westerlies'. Here's “Dendrites I” from Conrad Tao and the Westerlies collaborative album Bricolage.
MUSIC - Conrad Tao &The Westerlies - Dendrites I
That was the Westerlies and Conrad Tao performing their composition “Dendrites I” from their album Bricolage. In the way that they've scored this, you can almost hear the fireflies that are flickering outside the rural cabin in New Hampshire. Those of you who listen to WQXR might remember Conrad from WQXR's 2021 Artist Propulsion Lab.
The Artist Propulsion Lab is WQXR's program to support emerging and mid-career artists that also touts violist Jordan Bak as one of its alumni. Jordan released his debut album in May of 2022, featuring works written in the past 40 years that showcased the viola's sonic capabilities where sound and silence are equally essential.
Here's Jordan Bak performing fellow violist and composer Leilahua Lanzilotti’s “ko’u inoa,” a piece composed in 2017 that is built on the Hawai'i Aloha anthem and incorporates not only Jordan's viola, but also his voice.
MUSIC - Leilahua Lanzilotti: ko’u inoa
Composer Leilahua Lanzilotti’s piece for solo viola and vocals “ko’u inoa” recorded by Jordan Bak for his 2022 album, Impulse, released by Bright Shiny Things. The album includes pieces by Rebecca Clarke, Joan Tower, Quinn Mason, Jeffrey Mumford, Toru Takemitsu, and Tyson Gholston Davis. In fact, Tyson's piece, Tableau XII was commissioned by WQXR for Jordan as part of Jordan's year in the Artist Propulsion Lab.
Here's Jordan Bak performing Tyson Gholston Davis's “Tableau XII” for Solo viola.
MUSIC - Tyson Gholston Davis: Tableau XII
That was Jordan Bak performing Tyson Gholston Davis's, “Tableau XII” for solo viola. I'm joined back here in the studio by cellist Tommy Mesa. Tommy, what is one of your favorite things about getting to work on a new piece with a living composer?
Tommy Mesa: It feels like you're a part of something that's happening now. And being a part of a conversation that's, you know, a dialogue, whether it's, you know, in person or whether it's what we talked about. We're just sending messages back and forth. It feels like not only is it great to communicate with people who have their ideas on paper, but you're also feeling like you're playing something that is a sort of zeitgeist of what we do.
And I love that feeling. I love that you're have you have your finger on the pulse of what's happening now, what people are thinking now. And that's why I loved creating this project during the pandemic and will continue to create projects like that because it makes me feel like I'm a part of what's now.
Emi Ferguson: And the project that Tommy's talking about is his album, Songs of Isolation, where he commissioned three composers, Andrea Casarrubios, Carlos Simon, and Stephanie Ann Boyd to create newly written pieces for solo cello as a response to what it felt like to be in isolation at the beginning of the pandemic. And earlier we heard all three of these pieces, and we started with your performance of Andrea's piece "Seven" for solo cello. And we have one more piece of Andrea's to share, and I would love you to tell me a little bit more about “Mensajes del Aqua.”
Tommy Mesa: Yeah, so “Mensajes del Agua” is for cello and piano, and this was written in 2019. It's a deep meditation inspired by the delicate and perfect shapes found in unpolluted frozen water.
Emi Ferguson: And could you translate the title to English for us?
Tommy Mesa: So, this is, uh, mensajes del agua, is, uh, messages in water.
Emi Ferguson: Mm. Here's Tommy and Andrea performing Andrea's piece “Mensajes del Agua.”
MUSIC - Andrea Casarrubios: Mensajes del Agua
That was “Mensajes del Agua,” performed by Andrea Casarrubios and cellist Tommy Mesa with Andrea at the piano. To close out our show today, we'll hear one last piece performed by Tommy. A piece written in 2015 called “Carolina's Jig” by composer, Lydia Jane Pugh. Tommy, can you just give us a little bit about this one piece?
Tommy Mesa: It is just a party. It is such an awesome piece. Lydia is, you know, essentially celebrating a bunch of different sounds that the cello can create here in the form of a sort of country jig. So very different from everything we've heard until now. So nice contrast here.
Emi Ferguson: Cellist Tommy Mesa performing Lydia Jane Pugh's “Carolina's Jig” for solo cello.
MUSIC - Lydia Jane Pugh: Carolina's Jig
Cellist Tommy Mesa performing Lydia Jane Pugh's piece for solo cello “Carolina's Jig.” Tommy, it's been such a pleasure to have you here in the studio. Thank you for sharing all of these incredible stories about this music and for bringing it into the world.
Tommy Mesa: Thank you so much. I'm grateful to you, Emi. It's nice to see you again after so long. Grateful to WQXR as well for having me. This is really wonderful. I hope to see you guys soon again.
Emi Ferguson: And if you want to hear any of the tracks from Tommy's album, Songs of Isolation, you can stream them on all of the various different platforms as well as order the CD from his website. And if you want to hear Tommy in person, you're in luck. Tommy, when's your next concert here in New York City?
Tommy Mesa: So actually, on April 4th I'll be doing a recital, um, with Ilya Yakushev, pianist. Uh, and we're going to be playing works, uh, for their Tuesday matinee series. Uh, and we'll be doing a bunch of, you know, more traditional music a Debussy Sonata. And of course, uh, there'll be another piece on that program by Kevin Day who wrote a cello sonata that's absolutely beautiful. And so really diverse program, uh, and super excited for to present that at Merkin Hall.
Emi Ferguson: Wonderful. The McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase is generously underwritten on WQXR by the Harold W McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. Here's Terry McGraw with more.
Terry McGraw: Good evening, everyone. It's great to be with you and it's always great being with the Young Artists Showcase and to hear these really wonderful and inspiring musicians as they continue to share their incredible gifts with us every week. I can't wait to hear the fabulous talent coming up on The Showcase, and I am so pleased to be able to support the series all through its well over four decades on WQXR. And there's so much more to come.
Emi Ferguson: Thank you, Terry. And special thanks to Louis Levitt at Bright Shiny Things, and Bob Lord at Parma Records for letting us share these recordings of music by today's composers. You heard works by living composers Andrea Casarrubios, Carlos Simon, Stephanie Ann Boyd, Anne Leilahua Lanzilotti, The Westerlies and Conrad Tao, Tyson Gholston Davis, and Lydia Jane Pugh. This week, we looked at young artists championing new music, and next week we'll celebrate young musicians who are reinvigorating music of the past. Here on the McGraw Family's Young Artists Showcase. Many thanks to WQXR program producers Eileen Delahunty, Max Fine, and Laura Boyman, with additional production assistance by Maya Cassady.
Our generous program underwriter is the Harold W McGraw Jr. Family Foundation. I'm Emi Ferguson sitting in for Bob Sherman. Goodnight.
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