From exhaustion to ecstasy: An extraordinary day in the life of a TMC fellow

"Oh, my God!"

A passenger on the yellow school bus carrying Tanglewood Music Center fellows to the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Lenox home on Tuesday night had spotted one of the grounds' packed parking lots. Besides the rustle of the plastic covering white dinner jackets in the wind and the roar of the bus' engine, it was the first significant noise since the vehicle had left Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield, the fellows' summer abode. The group would be performing in the annual Tanglewood on Parade gala concert later that evening, sharing the stage with the BSO and Boston Pops.

More filled parking lots appeared. "We're never going to get out of here," another fellow added, already considering a post-performance exit strategy.

Murmurs of agreement followed. While anticipation was palpable on the bus, exhaustion was, too. After more than a month of rehearsals, classes and performances, many of the fellows were burned out, according to Nathaniel Taylor, a cellist who was sitting near the front of the bus. He had taken a long nap in preparation for the big night, leaving him refreshed and excited. But as he walked down the path leading from the main gate to the Koussevitzky Music Shed a few minutes later, passing hordes of people picnicking on the pristine lawn surrounding the venue, Taylor's tenor changed.

"Pressure's on," he said.

Taylor had taken the same route to the Shed more than nine hours earlier, but the grounds were nearly empty at that time. "It's nice to be on campus when nobody's here," he said. A moment later, he eyed the stairs leading to the Shed's shady back deck warily. Taylor and the rest of the fellows were scheduled to rehearse in a couple of hours, so he wanted to drop off his cello and grab some coffee beforehand. Still, he wasn't sure if he was entitled to access the area usually reserved for the BSO, which was about to start its own preparations for the concert.

"There's a pecking order," Taylor said later.

When BSO cellist Owen Young approached, Taylor asked him what he thought. Young assumed it was fine, and it was: the deck was mostly unoccupied, giving Taylor plenty of space to lean his black case against a wooden railing and fix himself a morning brew as he waited for his turn to fill the fresh morning air with classical music.

Taylor's hesitancy was borne more out of respect for the Boston institution than fear. After all, TMC fellows rehearse alongside and take classes from BSO members throughout the fully funded two-month program, "an intensive schedule of study and performance for emerging professional instrumentalists, singers, conductors, and composers who have completed most of their formal training in music," according to Tanglewood's website.

Moreover, Taylor's background doesn't suggest a person who's shy about entering spaces where he may not be readily invited, either. As a biracial (Taylor's mother, Jean, is Filipino, and his father, Jerry, is African-American) classical musician, the 24 year old says his dark skin has been an obstacle to pursuing his passion throughout his life. "You don't see people like me in classical music," he said.

Born in Manila but raised in Waldorf, Md., since he was 3, Taylor first became enamored with the cello at age 5 when he saw Yo-Yo Ma play for Elmo on an episode of "Sesame Street." He started taking lessons when he was 10, but he said he quickly felt pressured to fit "a certain image" of being African-American in racially divided Waldorf. He listened to hip-hop and sagged his pants, he said. "I was always putting on a mask at school," he recalled. As he grew older, he realized that the image didn't suit him. "I'm not saying it's a bad image; it's just not me," he said.

After years of training and study, he's currently pursuing his third degree in string performance at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. After learning of his acceptance to the TMC, "I was doing backflips," he said. Months later, he's posting Instagram photographs with Ma and learning from his esteemed peers.

But Taylor's fellowship experience isn't always so pleasant. When wandering Tanglewood's pristine grounds, he said he often catches the predominantly white crowd staring at him, particularly when he's not carrying his cello. "People think I'm some sort of novelty," he said.

Still, Taylor stresses that his fellowship experience has been positive, albeit tiring. When we exited the morning bus that had taken us to Tanglewood's main parking lot, Taylor immediately mentioned his desire to use the Shed's coffee maker. "My brain's still waking up," he said.

The rest of Taylor had awoken at 7 that morning. After showering, shaving and changing into an all-black outfit (polo shirt, slacks and Oxfords) in preparation for the afternoon cello ensemble concert, Taylor ate breakfast in the Miss Hall's cafeteria before lugging his cello case onto the bus at 9:30 a.m. Two other fellows, viola player Hannah Martineau and cellist Fanny Spangaro, were already seated when Taylor arrived. Spangaro, a student at Rice University, hadn't gotten the all-black message, raising her voice in disbelief when Taylor informed her. Her voice rose to a similar volume when she checked the schedule for the day. "John Williams is conducting!" she said, noting the famous conductor's scheduled appearance that night and calling him her "hero."

With up to 150 fellows on campus at any time, fellows' days are rarely the same, but an orchestral rehearsal generally anchors them. Today's two-hour rehearsal was particularly vital, as fellows ran through the gala concert's program.

Afterward, Taylor walked to a courtyard ("our stomping grounds," Taylor said) connected to Seiji Ozawa Hall, where the cello ensemble would be playing in an hour.

Cellists quietly lingered by two tables and a small kitchen at one end of the courtyard, waiting for their performance to begin. By 2:10 p.m., Taylor had removed his cello from its case and began working his bow across the strings he meticulously maintatins. Others followed, and soon the courtyard's serenity had been transformed into cacophony.

The nearly 30-member ensemble was in harmony during the performance, delighting the crowd with virtuosity and charm alike, such as when they played "Cello Submarine."

"Total fun," one admirer told Taylor outside Ozawa.

Taylor appreciated the compliment, but he was anxious to return to his dorm, where he could get some much-needed rest. "I'm burned out," another fellow, Luke Fieweger, said during the ride back.

At 6:55 p.m., just over an hour before the gala concert was set to begin, Taylor was using the Shed's coffee maker again. In addition to his nap, Taylor had enjoyed a light dinner (five spare ribs), but another energy boost couldn't hurt. He subsequently took out his cello and began warming up with "something light," finding a corner of the crowded deck to get his fingers loose.

During the concert, the fellows performed some Copland and Kod ly during the first three numbers before returning for the finale, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." Taylor took his position stage left, chatting with his neighbors, quick to smile. Soon, the cellist was swiveling his head from side to side as the orchestra played a vigorous rendition of the crowd-pleaser before taking their bows. Taylor beaming and raising his eyebrows at one point as he stood before the cheering audience of about 12,000.

Moments later, he joined many of the fellows who had quickly assembled on a patch of lawn next to the Shed. A fireworks show ensued, moving the young musicians to expel various ecstatic sounds. After a long day, they were re-energized.


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