COVID-19 not only produced staggering amounts of death, devastation, depression and isolation worldwide, but it also inspired two profound works of new music that will be performed next weekend in the Quad Cities.
Acclaimed young cellist Tommy Mesa (who played in Davenport Sept. 23 for a Quad City Symphony Orchestra chamber concert) is the featured soloist for the first Masterworks of the new season next weekend. That program will be Saturday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Davenport’s Adler Theatre and Sunday, Oct. 8, 2 p.m., at Rock Island’s Centennial Hall.
The QCSO will open their 109th season with Samuel Barber’s vivid and witty The School for Scandal Overture, capturing the madcap spirit of Richard Sheridan’s comedic play.
Mesa – an award-winning Cuban-American cellist — returns to the QC to perform Andrea Casarrubios’s Seven, a hauntingly beautiful tribute to the pandemic’s essential workers and those who lost their lives, followed by Jessie Montgomery’s Divided, which finds beauty amid conflict and chaos.
The concert comes to a triumphant close with Dmitri Shostakovich’s breathtaking artistic statement emerging from a period of Soviet artist suppression, his Fifth Symphony.
Mesa, a 33-year-old Cuban-American native of Miami, performed with organist (and close friend) Greg Zelek Sept. 23 at First Presbyterian Church, 1702 Iowa St., Davenport.
“Divided,” a 2020 cello concerto by Jessie Montgomery, is a kind of battle between two entities that “sort of reflects this helplessness and behavior that have risen as a result of our world in the last few years,” Mesa said in a recent interview with Local 4. The work was commissioned by the Sphinx Virtuosi (of which he is principal cellist) for him to premiere.
“There’s a lot of clashing, playing at each other in a way,” he said. “Just when you think things are together, they’re not. They are off by a little bit. It reflects whether it’s politics, or any particular issue, people don’t seem to come together on things anymore – they just want to argue.”
The cello part is pained and mournful, starting with this cry for society to be unified, Mesa said.
“It’s this soliloquy – very mournful and tragic sounding,” he said. “It makes you feel like there’s a lot of pent-up aggression and frustration. Then the actual battle ensues, and there’s a real sense of combat in the piece after that.”
In her program note, the composer said the piece “is a response to the social and political unrest that has plagued our generation in the recent past. Specifically, the sense of helplessness that people seem to feel amidst a world of that seems to be in constant crisis, whether it is over racial injustice, sexual or religious discrimination, greed and poverty, or climate change.
“In a world that is so fast-paced, where all of these desperate realities have been unveiled by the internet with constant visual bombardment to the human psyche, how do we regain control and find beauty among the chaos?” Montgomery wrote.
“How can we stack good actions over the negative reactions that easily emerge out of conflict? The cello is a voice crying out to be heard, in chorus with a few, passionate and unrelenting, with the orchestra performing a gritty accompaniment.”
In the tumultuous year of 2020, instead of the United States, we became the Divided States of America.
Like so many others, Mesa saw the national mood be fractured by so many major issues on the table at once – from COVID, vaccines and masking, to unemployment, shutdowns, political polarization, Black Lives Matter and fights for racial justice.
“So many people felt so helpless,” he said. “Regardless of what anyone thinks of either side, everyone didn’t understand each other. There was this lack of understanding and coming together and think that’s what this piece really tries to convey.”
Montgomery has had a long relationship with the Sphinx Organization, for 25 years.
Mesa met her through Sphinx Virtuosi, and she’s emerged as a leading compositional voice, the cellist said.
“Our relationship as friends, we love working together and I’m hoping to continue that relationship with other commissions as well,” Mesa said. He’s toured “Divided” last season with about 25 performances and plans to do it about six times his season.
Mesa is recipient of the 2023 Sphinx Medal of Excellence Award, First Prize in the 2016 Sphinx Competition, and Winner of the Astral Artists 2017 National Auditions. He has appeared as soloist with major orchestras such as The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, The Cleveland Orchestra, and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Mesa earned his bachelor’s degree from the famed Juilliard School of Music, master’s from Northwestern University, and his doctor of musical arts from the Manhattan School of Music.
Searing, stunning “Seven”
“Seven” – commissioned by Mesa from cellist Andrea Casarrubios — is a tribute to the essential workers during the global COVID pandemic as well as to those who lost lives (the virus killed over 1.12 million Americans and 6.96 million worldwide), and suffered from the crisis.
Written in 2020 in Manhattan, the piece ends with seven bell-like sounds, alluding to New York’s daily 7 p.m. tribute during the lockdown, the moment when New Yorkers clapped from their windows, connecting with each other and expressing appreciation for those on the front lines.
A review by Crystal Bick (This Time Tomorrow) called it “a hauntingly beautiful tribute… a work that will grip your heart and punch you in the stomach in the most beautiful, cathartic, and absolutely necessary way.”
Mesa commissioned Casarrubios to write the unaccompanied solo piece reflecting the pandemic.
“She’s a cellist as well and she wrote this piece in a couple of months,” he said recently. “What came out is one of the most beautiful cello pieces I’ve ever heard and I’ve heard other people say that as well.”
Mesa wanted it as a solo work because of the pandemic restrictions at the time, he wouldn’t be able to perform with other people. “Seven” premiered in 2021, with Sphinx Virtuosi.
“It was a very relevant piece back then and I think it has evolved into something quite different,” he said. “I know it means a lot of different things to a lot of people. What it is essentially is a dedication to the essential workers who did work very intensely to keep our communities healthy, but it’s also to those who we lost at this time and a lot of people can relate to this, and so can I.”
“Seven” has a lot of pathos and creates a very somber sound, Mesa said.
“It’s beautifully written by her, because she’s a great cellist and a great composer,” he said. “I’m so excited for her, because this piece allowed her to emerge as a wonderful composer who’s getting tons of commissions, following the pandemic.”
“Life is hard and people relate to this piece very intimately,” Mesa said of the continuing relevance of “Seven.”
His grandfather died from COVID in his 80s during 2021. He was the one who brought Mesa’s family from Cuba in 1961 to the U.S., when his own father was 1 year old.
Mesa’s involvement in the Sphinx Organization dates back to 2016, when he won the competition, which was a turning point in his career, opening up many more concert opportunities. It also exposed Mesa to many more minority composers (who are Black and Latin).
“I didn’t do a lot of new music commissioning or playing until that point in my life because I didn’t have a lot of exposure to it,” he said. “My teachers didn’t necessarily push me to play new music.”
Focusing on new music
“I think it’s just so important – there’s so much you can learn, that can be valuable to the canon,” Mesa said. “It’s not just about Brahms and Beethoven; of course you have to play that music, because it’s phenomenal music. You have to play Bach, but you have to play other things that’s great music, that you can learn from.”
It’s vital to attract more diverse musicians and audiences, to expose them to more composers and performers who look like them.
“When people go to the concert hall and they hear music by composers who are like them, or see performers who are like them, it’s such a game-changer for them, to see what’s possible,” Mesa said.
His inspirations on cello were Yo-Yo Ma, and Jacqueline du Pre (1945-1987).
“I just wanted to sound like them, so I imitated them,” Mesa said. He just released a new album with a bandoneon player (JP Jofre), called “Como El Agua.”
“There’s so much passion in that combination and it’s all music written by him,” Mesa said. “It’s beautiful, approachable music that people will love. It’s my first crossover album, so I’m really excited about the future.”
He also recently recorded with Sphinx Virtuosi, including “Divided,” which was released a few months ago. They will tour later this month and the spring.
Sphinx Organization partners with orchestras to send minority soloists to perform. They do arts administration training, student summer programs, and annual conferences.
“They are such a large tree, with so many branches of assistance,” Mesa said. “They have grant opportunities that they offer.”
“They make sure there is an excellence and striving toward an equitable enrollment in these schools and orchestras,” he said.
Mesa last performed with the QCSO in a Michael Abels string quartet (with orchestra), “Delights and Dances,” in April 2021.
“I have a small dream to commission him for a cello concerto,” the cellist said of Abels, who shared the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in music with Rhiannon Giddens.
Commitment to diversity
QCSO executive director Brian Baxter said Monday that he and the audience for the Sept. 23 Up Close concert (featuring cello and organ) loved it.
“It was fantastic. The two musicians, they’re incredible, incredibly virtuosic,” he said.
The living female composers next weekend reflect the QCSO commitment to diversify its programming.
“There’s been a huge shift for orchestras nationally, to more diverse voices being heard on stage. So I think this program is most certainly reflective of that,” Baxter said. “We’re really excited about that because there’s just an unbelievable amount of different things that really bright artistic voices have to say through the orchestra, and it’s not limited to simply European white men.”
Baxter said it’s thrilling to pair the new works with the long-established composers like Barber and Shostakovich.
“It’s really exciting to be a part of that. Like we’re really connected into the fabric of like art that’s happening right now,” he said.
The QCSO is among 30 orchestras nationwide part of the League of American Orchestras’ Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation Orchestral Commissions Program.
The unprecedented national consortium ensures that new works by women composers, each commissioned by the League, will be infused in orchestra seasons to come, with multiple performances throughout the country.
Five orchestras are working with one of six female composers, and a new piece by Angel Lam will be done first by the Kansas City Symphony next April, and by the QCSO in October 2024, Baxter said.
Adding to the diversity for the first 2023-24 Masterworks concerts here is one of the QCSO promo partners, the Greater Quad Cities Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which will benefit from some of the proceeds of ticket sales, Baxter said.
“We’ve had a number of groups in the past that really have had success with it,” he said. “They’ve raised some funds for their organization and it’s a good way to demonstrate how the music can bring people together.”
A new pop-up concert
Mesa also will be part of a free QCSO chamber music concert to inaugurate the new MLK Park at 501 Brady St., Davenport.
The QCSO with The Friends of MLK is presenting a special Pop-Up Performance featuring Mesa, the QCSO guest artist for the first Masterworks concert of the season, and two QCSO violinists, Janis Sakai, and Emily Nash, for a noon concert Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, at the stage in the new park.
Mesa, will perform musical selections in the park’s beautiful outdoor setting on the day before the QCSO’s opening Masterworks concert, “From Conflict to Courage.”
The new park is at the corner of 5th and Brady in an area that at one time was a vibrant mixed-race restaurant, entertainment, and house district. This neighborhood was frequented by African-Americans traveling via the Chicago-Pacific railroad and was home to what is believed to be Davenport’s first Black business owner.
In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King’s only visit to Davenport (1965) was to receive the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom award, just two blocks away from this site. The park aims to tell the stories and contributions of the black community in Quad Cities history. While in the park, guests can celebrate unity, diversity, and the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.
The noon Pop-Up Performance is free, and all members of the community are encouraged to join to celebrate the new park and the first QCSO Masterworks of the season. Please bring your own seating and consider arriving early to secure a good spot.
On Saturday, from 6 p.m.-7:15 p.m., there will be a pre-concert social hour at the Mississippi River Distilling Downtown Lounge (318 E. 2nd St., Davenport), with free hors d’oeuvres and cash bar. For tickets and more information about the Oct. 7-8 concerts, click HERE.