On a Personal Note

The Courage of Our Convictions

Episode Summary

Viola Player Eliesha Nelson finds strength in Anton Bruckner’s strongly-held belief that good conquers all—at a time when uncertainty troubles many.

Episode Notes

Viola Player Eliesha Nelson finds strength in Anton Bruckner’s strongly-held belief that good conquers all—at a time when uncertainty troubles many.

Featured Music:

BRUCKNER – Symphony No. 5

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Episode Transcription


Welcome to The Cleveland Orchestra’s On a Personal Note, where every story has a soundtrack.  In difficult situations or moments of sheer joy, music connects us with our humanity.  

Eliesha Nelson:

My name is Eliesha Nelson, and I play viola in The Cleveland Orchestra. I chose the Bruckner Fifth Symphony because that was one of the last pieces I performed on the stage of Severance Hall. Bruckner was incredibly, deeply religious. He was a devout Catholic. I feel like belief is sort of the foundation of his music. Belief is about your mindset, about how you think, and to me, more importantly, which thoughts you choose to hold on to.

As a string player, many of us don’t like to play Bruckner because his symphonies are very long. They’re technically difficult. We have to have a lot of stamina. Sometimes you have several minutes of holding one note, whole notes, doing minutes of tremolo. After playing four minutes of tremolo, your arm is about to fall off. You’re exhausted. Things are cramping up. You’re tired. It’s like, “Oh, when will this end?”

Musically, what I think — what Bruckner portrays is quite powerful. Aspects of the way he composes feel very much like what we’re going through right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty. Bruckner has — composes with these super long lines. Sometimes you wonder, “Well, where is this going? What’s happening? What shall I expect?”

Being here by myself, a single parent with my child, trying to balance all sorts of things, trying to keep my cool, trying not to freak out — that strength of his belief is something that I am grabbing onto. I think beliefs are powerful. We all have them. You can be religious or not religious, but it’s about choosing how I’m going to manifest right now. I am one of the very lucky ones to not have huge, huge traumas of either losing a loved one, being sick with COVID-19, or with anything. I do have loved ones who are essential workers. I do worry about them. But for me, myself, right now, and my child, right now, we’re okay. And I have just an abundance of gratitude for where I am right now.

I think of — Gee, not that there’s a trauma Olympics or anything, but I think of my ancestors; I’m an African American woman. What my ancestors went through for me to be here right now, in my relative safety, is beyond belief. It’s a gratitude that I have for what came before me. And I owe it to myself and to them to see what I have now, and to truly appreciate it. Because this will pass, and something new will arise, and hopefully whatever arises will be really wonderful.

I think all of us are, at times, optimistic; at times, pessimistic; at times, deep in the depths of despair; and other times, euphoric. And that’s what you find in Bruckner’s music. You have questioning melodies followed by a commanding one.  You’ll have something that’s really sort of plaintive and sorrowful, that’s followed by something that’s lighthearted. You’ll have anguish that’s followed by calm, hope followed by despair. You have these juxtapositions of opposites in his music.

We’re all human. We all have these dramatic extremes that happen in our lives. We have sudden traumas. We have traumas that build up over time. As I’ve gotten older, for me, life is less about what I’m accomplishing and what I am doing; that end goal, that bucket list thing, that tick off of my list of things I’ve done, places I’ve been, auditions I’ve won, or recordings I’ve made.  It’s less about that. It’s about the journey. It’s about each breath, how things connect from one to the next.

What the music, for me, is about, it’s about this journey. It’s about the meandering.  Because when you think about it, life isn’t about super huge thrills every single day. We don’t get to go on the extravagant vacation every day. We get to do it once a year, once every two years, once a decade. These huge highs are not every day, just as, hopefully, the huge lows are not every day. So, what’s in between all of that? I think that’s how he writes.  I think that’s what it’s about. You do have these huge highs and some places of deep despair, and a lot of just sort of space in between. It’s very expansive. So when you approach the music, sort of almost in a meditative kind of state, you’re able to allow for that time and allow yourself to meander, sometimes when the music is meandering, but to come back to it.

You know, for me, the last four minutes of the, what, 80-minute symphony, or however long it is, are so incredibly powerful. It represents this incredible, ecstatic fervor of praise and of faith, and a belief that good conquers all. You have this gorgeous, majestic chorale that the brass play, and there’s something about the pure beauty of it, the fact that it’s not all rosy; there are passages of tension, of despair — but at the very end, there’s this release, there’s this sense of peace, of resolution.

And whenever I play it and whenever I hear it, I just — the hairs on my skin stand up and there’s something about it that is just so ecstatic, and so outside of what it is to be me, to be human.  Something that is about grasping onto that power which is greater than ourselves.

It gives such hope.  Of course, it’s trite to say, “Yes, this too shall pass and blah, blah, blah.”  But right when you’re in the thick of something, when you really need support, then let’s pull out all the stops. Let’s get those things that support us. Whatever music it is that supports you, whatever touches you, whatever gives you that kind of love and support and care that you need, absolutely, revel in it.


That was Eliesha Nelson with Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. For some, a test of endurance, and others, a code of beliefs in which good inevitably triumphs. We hope you’ll take a leap of faith and stay with us for the entirety of the final movement, coming up next. It was recorded live, at Severance Hall, in February of 2020.

And if you are enjoying what we’re doing with On a Personal Note, please subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts, and consider giving us a rating and a review. It really helps other people find us. More at clevelandorchestra.com/podcast.