Click here for the archive of profiles that takes you behind the scenes with some of the featured performers who bring their special talents to Emmanuel Music.
Cellist Cora Swenson Lee was only 15 and a freshman in high school when she left her native Illinois to play chamber music in a weeklong tour of Washington, D.C. This experience gave her a glimpse of life as a professional musician that was exhilarating and empowering. She thought, “I could do this forever – travel and play wonderful music with people I really like working with.”
Swenson Lee became a more serious musician when she returned from the tour. No longer content to play for pleasure, she became more focused and thought more analytically about her music studies. Throughout high school she played to gain as much experience as she could and consciously prepared to qualify for study at a conservatory after graduation.
In fact, Swenson Lee seized so many opportunities to play that she temporarily sidelined herself with tendinitis in both rotator cuffs. "Arriving at Eastman was an overwhelming experience. I was, for the first time, completely immersed in the serious study of music and surrounded by fantastic players. I had not been able to play my cello all summer, and in many ways my recovery was stressful, but at the same time I had never been happier. I was thrilled to be a part of it all." As it turned out, she had landed in an ideal place.
Alan Harris, Swenson Lee’s teacher, was particularly gifted in focusing on technique and the physical setup of the cello. “He was not only willing, but excited to work with me on developing a style of playing that wouldn’t aggravate my injuries,” Swenson Lee says. “He gave me many more tools of expression that made me a better cellist. He also approached every lesson with the goal of making my musical ideas the most effective they could be, rather than telling me how I should relate to the music. He trusted me as a musician, which I am always grateful for.”
Swenson Lee seems to have been born to play the cello. Unlike many cellists, she began playing her instrument as a very young child without first starting on violin or piano. She was inspired at age three by seeing Yo Yo Ma on the children’s television show Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood. She immediately ran to her parents and declared that she simply had to play the cello. She refused to drop the subject for about six months, until her parents decided she was ready. Swenson Lee had her first cello lesson on Mozart’s birthday, just before she turned four.
Swenson Lee’s parents are musicians – her mother a singer and music teacher and her father a composer, lutenist, and guitarist as well as an environmental engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency – who have encouraged and supported their daughter’s training and career. Though she grew up in the small town of Fox River Grove, Illinois and attended a regional high school with limited music programs, Swenson Lee had excellent teachers in Chicago. Her cello teacher Marc Johnson was a renowned cellist and long-time member of the Vermeer Quartet. His wife Kathie became her chamber music teacher. “These teachers did so much for my musical education,” Swenson Lee says. “Most important, they believed in me and convinced me I could succeed as a musician.”
Young and aspiring string players always face a challenge in finding an instrument that is both affordable and worthy of their talents. In her senior year of high school Swenson Lee needed to replace her student cello before she studied at a conservatory, and searched for an appropriate instrument with her parents and teacher. Finally, at the shop where Swenson Lee found her student cello, they had an exceptional stroke of luck. As she tried out many instruments, the owner loved what he heard and remembered a 17th century Dutch cello that he had never fully restored. He restored this instrument and worked to make it ideal for her needs. Swenson Lee marvels at her good fortune to have such an exceptional instrument.
After Eastman, Swenson Lee came to Boston to study once again with Marc Johnson, who had retired from the Vermeer Quartet, moved to Maine, and begun teaching at Boston University. “In high school I wasn’t equipped physically and I wasn’t old enough to get the most from studying with Marc,” Swenson Lee says. “It was amazing to study with him for my Master’s degree and beyond. Marc was a natural teacher who spoke from the soul and was honest and practical. He heard something in me that he felt I had to share. It was an incredible experience to have a relationship with someone I could respect so much, and to know he felt the same way about me.”
Swenson Lee tragically lost her teacher to an untimely death not long after she finished her degree. But she carries what he taught with her. And BU opened career doors in other ways. She played Baroque cello at BU with Martin Pearlman, Artistic Director of Boston Baroque, who encouraged her to audition. She found herself playing Haydn’s Creation with Boston Baroque during the second year of her Master’s degree and then becoming a regular with the ensemble.
Boston Baroque connections in turn brought Swenson Lee invitations to play cantatas at Emmanuel Music in the 2013-14 season. One year later she was named a Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Fellow. This award recognizes young musicians of exceptional promise and offers them opportunities to perform in solo or prominent roles. In April 2015 Swenson Lee will be featured in the Mendelssohn-Wolf chamber series performance of Mendelssohn’s String Octet. “I’m constantly blown away by the exuberance of the piece; you can feel the energy about to boil over. But it’s also a surprisingly mature work for a 16-year old composer.” She also likes the octet because “it has the power of a full string section but the flexibility and communication of a quartet. It’s both intimate and powerful.”
In these early years of her career, Swenson Lee has a rich freelance life. In addition to Emmanuel Music and Boston Baroque, she plays with the Boston Public Quartet, a group that sought her out when it needed a cellist and is actively involved in the Boston Celebrity Series school outreach program. Swenson Lee has formed a Baroque trio, Trio Speranza, which debuted at the 2013 Boston Early Music Festival; at the 2014 Early Music America Baroque Performance Competition it won the Presentation Prize for Innovative Programming (the focus was on late French Baroque pieces that began to give the cello equal status with the violin). Trio Speranza will play in Chicago, Rochester, and the Boston Early Music Festival this spring. And as much as she “craves” playing early music, Swenson Lee needs the balanced musical diet that her freelance life provides. “After a few weeks of playing Baroque I think, ‘Oh, I need some Shostakovich. And then I throw myself into that.’”
It can seem that Swenson Lee’s career has been shaped by an equal measure of hard work and the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. Whether finding ideal teachers and the perfect cello or getting a call to audition or play with an excellent ensemble, she has demonstrated a musicianship that both musicians and audiences respond to. And yet even her success has not been a straight path. When Swenson Lee was studying at BU, she auditioned for many orchestra jobs, hoping to find a full-time position that would offer stability and became a finalist more than once. The experiences were a valuable part of her education, and revealed to her a path better suited to her interests. “I love the variety and the travel of freelance life,” Swenson Lee says. “I get to play in a different kind of ensemble every week and I get to actively affect the artistic outcome of the projects.” In her freelance world, Emmanuel Music holds a special place. “Every time I step into the building it’s like a warm hug. There’s so much mutual respect in the ensemble. This is what it’s supposed to be like to be a musician – to play without competition, just basking in the joy of making wonderful music with people you love.”