Jan. 4 2017 12:32 AM

Cleveland Orchestra cellist Tanya Ell makes her solo debut with Lansing Symphony

This has not been an ordinary trip home for cellist Tanya Ell, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s guest soloist Saturday.

“This is an incredible opportunity for me, really, a dream, to get to play with the Lansing Symphony,” Ell said. “It’s really amazing for me to have a homecoming like this.”

Cellist Tanya Ell (left), at age 15, with one of her teachers, Louis Potter Jr., in the orchestra room of Kinawa Middle School in 1994.
Photo courtesy Tanya Ell

Born and raised in Okemos, Ell, 38, is a mainstay of the Cleveland Orchestra, often cited as one of the half-dozen greatest in the world. When she joined the orchestra in 2007, she was the youngest cellist on the roster.

Ell’s parents, clarinetist Frank Ell and cellist Eva Ell, are longtime Lansing Symphony players, now retired.

Tanya Ell has every right to be blasé about Lansing, having played many times for Cleveland Orchestra maestro Franz Welser-Möst and illustrious guest conductors at the revered musical Acropolis of Severance Hall.

But she’s not.

Ell has been keeping an eye on Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt for years.

In fall 2010, she played with Muffitt and the Lansing Symphony as one-third of a three-headed soloist, the Trio Terzetto, for a lively romp through Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. Before that, she listened avidly to Muffitt and her home town team.

“I was really struck by the sincerity of his musicianship, even more so when I was working with him,” Ell said. “That is one of the rarest things to find in the music world — conductors who really care about the music, and he does it so well.”

It’s depressing to hear that sincerity is rare among conductors, but Ell takes the deficiency in stride.

“People have all kinds of personality traits in this life as a musician,” she explained diplomatically. “You’re in the public eye, and it’s a vulnerable place to be. So I really respect Timothy Muffitt’s sincerity. He doesn’t have to add a lot of superficial things on top of it.”

On the other hand, Ell admits that playing with the Cleveland Orchestra is something special. Plenty of orchestral musicians quickly shrivel from starry-eyed rookies to jaded clock punchers, but the music making in Cleveland is intense and surprisingly intimate.

“There are so many times in that orchestra where I’m sitting there and it feels like a giant chamber music ensemble,” Ell said. “It’s really thrilling when everybody’s awareness is completely in one place with the conductor.”

Okemos native Tanya Ell, cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra, joins the Lansing Symphony as featured soloist Saturday.
Courtesy photo

Ell didn’t even get the orchestral bug until she began studying for her master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, just around the corner from Severance Hall.

“I don’t think the power of a live orchestral performance ever quite hit me as much as when I was in that hall in my 20s,” she said.

One memorable night, Welser-Möst and the orchestra played Joseph Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” and, almost without a pause, brought Dame Felicity Lott to join the orchestra for Strauss’ devastating “Four Last Songs.” It was one of many nights that inspired Ell to try out. She still marvels that she is sitting in the same orchestra’s cello section, playing for the same maestro that awed her when she was in school.

“I’ll always be pinching myself,” she said. “I never assumed I would be doing this or that — you just do your best and see where it takes you.”

Ell has lived with Dvorák’s cello concerto, the centerpiece of Saturday’s concert, since she studied it in East Lansing with the great cello teacher and author of “The Art of Cello Playing,” Louis Potter, who died in 2009.

“It’s interesting to have a piece accompany you through life,” she said. “To me, it’s just one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.”

She first heard it played at Interlochen by Yo-Yo Ma in the early ‘90s.

“I was completely grabbed by the sheer emotion, the sadness of it, the grandeur,” she said.

As the years pass, she finds herself hearkening more to the sadder strains in the music, particularly Dvorák’s homesickness for the Czech Republic. Dvorák wrote the concerto while living in the United States.

“There’s a lot of pathos to the piece and a lot of gorgeous, proud, spacious music that I really love,” Ell said. “I think those things start to mean more to you as you get older.”

Ell’s big, warm cello sound seems to soar above mere technical challenges, but it takes hard work to achieve that kind of lift.

“Musicians are on a constant journey of not having to think too hard about the technique so that they are able to serve the music better,” she said. “The more at ease you are with being able to play the notes, the more you can just think about the music and be in the moment.”

The problem isn’t unique to musicians. When Ell was studying at the Juilliard School, she asked a drama student who was playing Lady Macbeth how she remembered all her lines.

“She said, ‘If I’m really clear about my intention, that is what makes me remember things,’” Ell recalled.

Having lived with the Dvorák concerto most of her life, how does she imagine she’ll play it in 20 or 30 years?

“I’ve watched how different musicians age and play, and I’m not really sure how I’m going to be at age 60,” she said. “Some people want to play their instrument until the very, very end and enjoy it, and other people become very frustrated in the 70s and 80s when their hands don’t work the same way they used to.”

She paused to think.

“You’ll have to get back with me on that one,” she said. “But I do know I’ll always enjoy listening.”

Masterworks 3: Dvorák Cello Concerto

Lansing Symphony Orchestra with Tanya Ell, cello
8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7
$20-50 Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 487-5001, lansingsymphony.org