Sunday, June 23, 2024

Jonah Ellsworth performs in October 2018 with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. (Photo: Paul Marotta)

At an age most kids are listening to childhood tunes such as “Wheels on the Bus,” then 4-year-old Cantabrigian Jonah Ellsworth was taking in Brahms’ piano quintet.

“My mother would take [me and my older brother] to music festivals that she was attending,” the still youthful – think 29 years old – master cellist recalls. “Honestly, it was a huge gift to have heard that at such a young age.” It was probably also an important contributor toward Ellsworth’s ascent to musical fame, most recently his appointment as one of three new members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He took his seat at the end of February in a program of works by Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninoff led by guest conductor Lahav Shani.

Ellsworth’s childhood on Lee Street, between Central and Harvard squares, was filled with music. His parents met at the New England Conservatory, where mom studied classical piano and dad studied classical voice. His older brother took up the violin and at 5, Ellsworth was working the cello. “It was basically the size of a viola,” he laughs, “a very, very small cello.” The boys often played with their mother at home as a makeshift trio. With that as a foundation, there seemed little doubt classical music would factor into his future. “I think I felt like I just have to do this,” he remembers, although “I wouldn’t say I loved music at that time.”

Following several early years at the Baldwin School, Ellsworth headed briefly out of town for high school to The Rivers School in Weston. He lasted one year. “The music program was not very advanced,” he says. “And it took quite a bit of time to [commute] in the morning and in the afternoon. I was losing some practice time, so we made the decision to just go just down the street to CRLS.”

When not in class at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, he continued to focus on the cello, related musical scores and increasing numbers of public performances. Academics took something of a back seat. Among his peers, it was more about rap and hip-hop. “That’s what we listened to. But my friends knew me as a cellist.” When the time came for college decisions, not surprisingly, Ellsworth eschewed the traditional route. “I didn’t apply to any universities. I wasn’t going anywhere for sports. My grades were not Harvard level,” he says. “It was pretty evident that I was going in a conservatory track.”

Ellsworth headed to Philadelphia that September 2012 to the highly competitive (4 percent acceptance rate) Curtis Institute of Music. By November, “I was on my way home,” he says. “I dropped out after two months. There was just some turmoil going on personally. And I don’t think I was ready yet to be in a real competitive environment.” He says his parents could not have been more supportive as he continued to practice his craft in Cambridge and, as he puts it, “stay in shape.” The following fall he was back in classrooms closer to home – at his parents’ alma mater, New England Conservatory.

The years since have been a blur of academic and performance achievements. Ellsworth ultimately got his bachelor’s and master of music degrees from NEC, as well as a master of musical arts degree from the Yale School of Music last May and its Aldo Parisot Prize (for promising cellists) and Yale School of Music Alumni Association Prize (for graduating students who excelled in their fields while making important contributions to the general life of the school.) He was a prizewinner in the 2017 Hudson Valley Philharmonic String Competition, a finalist in the 2011 Stulberg International String Competition in Michigan and the top prize recipient from the Harvard Musical Association in 2012.

Ellsworth has played with many orchestras along the way, including solo appearances with the Boston Philharmonic, Akron Symphony, Symphony by the Sea and the New England Conservatory Philharmonia. He has participated in music festivals around the globe, from Marlboro and Rockport to the Steans Institute of Ravinia in Illinois, Orford Musique in Quebec, Canada, and Verbier Festival in Switzerland.

He returned this last week from a BSO outing to New York City’s Carnegie Hall, a venue he has performed in before. Tired and reflective after a grueling, brief tour – “it’s been it’s been a hell of a couple days,” he laughs – Ellsworth sounded happy to be home, not just to Cambridge but to Symphony Hall.

“Whether you believe in fate or not, I think it’s kind of incredible that I’m playing with the hometown orchestra,” he says.

He especially cherishes the intimacy of the space. “Symphony Hall really feels like it’s the home hall, and it really feels like there are moments where the music is just so exquisitely beautiful.” Ellsworth almost sighs as he describes it, in a short reverie that is the antithesis of the intensity of his playing style, when his eyes clench and his head bobs and weaves, his whole being creating a musical force designed to engage. “Any praise of Jonah’s technical abilities is likely to be an understatement. He is completely assured and intensely musical,” the Boston Musical Intelligencer’s Christopher Hailey said in 2011.

For Ellsworth, the goals of performance are simpler. “When I play solo, I just hope that there’s one person in the audience who had a meaningful experience,” he says.

Feature image of Jonah Ellsworth by Kate Lemmon.

This post was updated May 2, 2023, to correct that there are three new performers in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, not four.