Opening Arms, Opening Doors

by Ron Oshima

Photo: Ron Oshima

What comes through immediately in talking with Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra Co-Principal Cellist Adela Ramirez is her deep love for classical music. She says, “I just love playing and listening to music. I love coming to rehearsal, learning, and getting better. I think that’s just something I’ve learned from MYSO.”

Adela started with MYSO in Progressions in the fourth grade. At school, she had started with the violin in the third grade. When she got to Progressions, she ended up selecting the cello. She progressed steadily through MYSO and placed into Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra as a sophomore this season. She also plays in her school orchestra at Pius XI High School in Milwaukee.

2022 has been quite a year for Adela. She won the Concerto Competition for Philharmonia and soloed with Gabriel Fauré’s Elegie at the May 22, 2022, concert. Things got even better when, at the end of June, she was accepted into the Sphinx Performance Academy (SPA) at the Cleveland Institute of Music campus focusing on chamber music. She was one of only 30 students selected nationwide to be admitted to the Cleveland program. Sphinx Performance Academy is a full-scholarship intensive summer chamber music and solo performance program, with a focus on cultural diversity for string musicians ages 11-17. This was the first music summer camp that Adela had ever attended.

Adela describes herself as someone who likes to keep busy. While she was attending MYSO rehearsals, she also danced with the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy, until about a year ago. She still dances ballet in a less demanding program at school. Ballet taught her self-discipline. But MYSO satisfied her passion for music. “I am always so grateful to be here and be able to play with great musicians. It is deeply satisfying to me.”

She was not familiar with classical music growing up. Her dad, who’s from Mexico, likes to listen to dance music. Her mother, who is German, Czech, and Danish, is from Milwaukee, and her side of the family serve as pianists and vocalists in church. As a child, she enjoyed putting together playlists and listening to a wide variety of music. When she started playing classical music, she would listen to the music and sing it to herself before and during practice at home. Dancing ballet to classical music pieces reinforced her love for it. She said, “just listening to it puts me in such a mentally focused state. It speaks to me without having to use words.”

She said, “I’ve never been super extroverted or introverted—just somewhere in the middle. And I feel like the non-vocal arts are just a little bit more powerful and meaningful to me, especially playing classical music. There are so many things I can do with classical music. I get to tell or project a story without using words. It just makes me so happy.”

Ravenna Helson has been Adela’s cello teacher since she started in Progressions. In January 2022, as Adela began preparations for her spring audition at MYSO, Ms. Helson suggested she apply to the Sphinx program. Ms. Helson said, “Sphinx has been a life changing experience for my students who have gone to the summer program. I encourage all my serious students of color to audition.” Adela submitted a video recording near the end of February, just before the deadline, and did not hear back until the end of June that she had been accepted. While waiting, the more she found out about the Sphinx Performance Academy, the more intrigued and excited she became. “This is actually really cool,” she thought.

Her parents drove her to Cleveland at the end of July. “I was intimidated and scared at first listening to all these kids play,” she said. “But it was amazing to see all these black and brown kids who look like me, and I had never seen that before. We instantly bonded that first night and some of them are really close friends with me now. It sounds like a cliché, but we spontaneously became a family that first night, and that’s what Sphinx calls it—a huge family. Everyone was so talented, so dedicated, and so passionate.” All the kids started asking each other to share their audition tapes.

The SPA doesn’t end with the summer program. Ms. Helson says, “The Sphinx program gives them what I can’t provide—a lifelong network of friendship, support, and connection.” As an example, Adela plans to attend SphinxConnect, the largest and longest-standing convening dedicated to diversity and inclusion in classical music, in Detroit, in January 2023.

Adela also learned about the Colburn Conservatory’s (Los Angeles) National Fortissima Program for ten female string players of color. The program accepts ten applicants per year who meet with a mentor online once a month for six months. At the end of six months, all ten are flown out to LA for a week-long residential intensive. Adela wants to apply for this, and there’s no way to predict whether she will be accepted into the 2023 program. What’s important is that her eyes have been opened to opportunities beyond her imagination…and it’s up to her to pursue them.

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