CAMBRIDGE — Cellist Jonah Park Ellsworth prefers not to be tethered to his smartphone as he walks through the streets or waits for the T. “Today I had to [bring it because of this interview],” he said at a Harvard Square cafe, the white phone in his lap face down, his dark eyes alert. “Usually I don’t like to have my phone so I can be a free thinker, and not stick to the script of life.”
Training to be a professional musician requires a sort of tunnel vision: the ability to tune out the rest of the world, spend hours upon hours in windowless practice rooms, and strive without distraction toward the next recital, audition, or competition. A Cambridge native, Ellsworth, 23, balances that with a palpable desire to connect with the world. Walking around phone-less when he can, focusing his attention on other people, and thinking about things besides music are a few ways he says he avoids the burnout that may seem inevitable for someone with his list of accomplishments and plans.
Though not yet finished with his undergraduate degree at New England Conservatory, where he is a student of Laurence Lesser, the cellist performs in the acclaimed Boston Trio with violinist Irina Muresanu and pianist Heng-Jin Park (his mother), and he has spent two summers in residence at the exclusive Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, with his third on the horizon. Before he leaves for this summer, he will play a recital with Park at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on Thursday, with a program to include works by Janácek, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and George Crumb.
A graduate of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, Ellsworth was born and raised in a musical family. In addition to his pianist mother, his father is a singer, and his brother plays the violin. He is as likely to be found listening to hip-hop as classical music; he named Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” as his favorite album of the year.
Joining the Boston Trio in 2015 required an extra dose of discipline, he recalled. “On the few occasions where my mind wasn’t in it or I wasn’t thinking about it the night before, I just paid for it, you know?” he said. He expressed his deep admiration for Muresanu’s “warm vibrato” and “penetrating tone,” and described himself as the “luckiest person in the world” to be receiving mentorship from her and Park.
And the feeling is mutual. “Jonah is an “old soul” in spite of his young age,” wrote Muresanu in an e-mail. “His music making has a gravitas usually associated with experienced artists.”
Ellsworth described himself as frustrated with the competitive atmosphere that can be found in music schools. “I don’t think enough of us encourage each other and make each other feel better,” he said, pointing out that there can be “four or five players at the top who get all the good stuff, and who the faculty love and love and love,” while the majority fly under the radar.
When asked if, given his successes, he might be one of those people at the top himself, he looked vaguely self-conscious but determined. “I’m not going to say that I try to be a worse musician, but I try to help other people and not be somebody who nobody . . .” He noticed an antique book, green with gilt pages, in a case next to our table. “It’s like this,” he said, gesturing to it. “I don’t want to be like this thing through a glass, who people can see but they can’t get to know, who they can’t relate to.”
The stories he tells underscore the importance of connection with others. As both a soloist and ensemble player, he has appeared on prestigious stages around Boston and around the world. However, he said it was the bonds through music and friendship that he forged in his years at Greenwood Music Camp in Cummington that gave him his most life-changing musical experiences.
“It was a non-competitive place, where the level wasn’t always very high, but nobody cared. Everyone had a common love for each other,” he said. “Music in itself is not competitive. I don’t believe it is.”
JONAH PARK ELLSWORTH AND HENG-JIN PARK
At Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, June 8, 8 p.m.www.rockportmusic.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.