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Cellist Thomas Mesa meets Sphinx Competition challenge

Thomas Mesa performing with pianist Larry Weng.Jill Sharon White

Age: 25

Hometown: Born in Miami, graduated from New England Conservatory’s Walnut Hill School for high school in Natick (2008), and currently resides in New York City.

Think of: “I really do think that it’s important to not just be a cellist in the most fundamental way. You need to be able to do everything if you want to make it,” Mesa said. “I do believe in speaking before you play a piece or a concert, and that’s something I’ve really been working on. In that situation, I find Yo-Yo Ma so inspiring. He really is more than just a cellist — he’s kind of this ‘big idea’ person, and I’d love to be like that.”


What caught our eye: Mesa was recently named the winner of the senior division of the 2016 Sphinx Competition, which is open to high school- and college-age Black and Latino strings players who reside in the United States.

Light bulb moment: The first thing that comes to mind: Do you know Jacqueline du Pré? From the first time I heard her — I was 11 years old, and this was when I had just started cello — my mom bought me a CD of hers that had a bunch of concertos on it, and I remember just listening to it and just thinking how unbelievable that sound was, and how badly I wanted to do that.

Biggest thrill: Every performance is a major thrill, Mesa said. “Being in front of an audience and realizing that you are in control and that you are the driver. And while we are playing classical music and we have our boundaries with what we can and can’t play on the page — you have to accurately express what’s on the page — there’s a lot of wiggle room in there. It’s kind of a project of mine; I really do love trying to do things differently on stage with different performances than in rehearsal, just to keep it fresh and to keep you in the moment.”


Inspired by: “The cello repertoire is specifically really inspiring. You have the solo works, you have the sonatas, you have the concerti, you have the show pieces. It’s fantastic what we have at our disposal,” Mesa said. He added that the first time he played the cello’s C string in sixth grade provided inspiration for the rest of his career. “It was really kind of one of those unforgettable moments. It just vibrated everything around me and in me. I imagine it sounded pretty awful at the time, but I do remember the sound was completely primal and evocative. It was unbelievable.”

Aspires to: “I think everything that has driven my choices is, how can I get better, and is this going to make me better? So really, the aspiration would be to be the best cellist I can be. And not just a cellist, but this type of person like Yo-Yo. He’s everything. He’s a representative of music itself and everything that you think of when you think of music and that’s, for me, when I die, that’s hopefully what I’ll be remembered by.”

What people should know: Over the course of the next two years, Mesa plans to continue performing while working toward his doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music. A calendar of his concerts can be found at the link below.



Emily Wright

Interview was condensed and edited. Emily Wright can be reached at