Oliver Aldort has been playing the cello since the age of six; at 21, he is now the youngest member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Originally from the West Coast, he grew up in picturesque Orcas Island, WA, and then attended the prestigious Curtis Music School. The Crimson sat down with Aldort to talk about the meaning of music, art in modern existence, and why we rarely hear classical music on the radio.
The Harvard Crimson: Is it important for you to be seen as more than just a cello player?
Oliver Aldort: Obviously music is a huge part of who I am. I’ve been playing cello since I was six, so I don’t really remember much of life before music. I do think it is important to have hobbies and a life outside of music. I just got here, so I am very focused on playing cello. But I love to take walks and spend time with friends. I love great literature…. I think these hobbies contribute to music; I think they’re all related. They’re all reflecting on life experience.
THC: The first result that came up when I searched your name is your mother’s parenting website, which brings up this stereotype of a child prodigy coached by a relentless mother. Was this the case? Was your motivation to pursue music internal or external?
OA: I asked to play cello when I was six, and I actually had to ask several times before I was given lessons. She wanted to make sure that I really wanted it. I never really thought about where the motivation came from. I was never one to be practicing five or six hours a day...but even when I didn’t want to practice, I always knew that I wanted to...be a musician. And I always had a very strong connection to music, which was a huge motivator itself.
THC: Do you think that classical music is still relevant to our generation?
OA: First of all, you can search the classical music station [on the radio] and then there is classical music playing. Obviously [it’s] not the most common thing that our generation listens to, but in a long-term sense I don’t necessarily worry about it because the great master works are so transcendent of any time and place that they will always be on the shelf, and there will always be interest in them. They’re not going to disappear.
THC: What do you think is the role of the artist in society?
OA: I think art is a fundamental human need. It is found in every culture. It’s more than the cliché that music can express what you can’t say in words. It can say things that we don’t have access to or that we wouldn’t realize without it. The great composers—if you take someone like Schumann or Schubert—what they are able to access to be able to come up with their compositions is a level of depth of feeling that most of us cannot even come close to. So if we hear that and the performer is able to empathize with that, we can have something revealed to us that we didn’t have access to.
THC: What is something non-musicians don’t know about making music?
OA: It’s totally instinctual to a certain degree. When it comes to hearing music and having a strong feeling for it, at that point it’s not an analytical intellectual process anymore…. I just try to channel what I hear through my instrument. There is a tendency to almost have too much respect for the composers. Instead of having a direct channel of feeling to the music, we take something by Beethoven, and we revere him so much that we don’t want to mess it up, so we try to “do it right,” and that can never lead to inspired music-making. Somehow, we have to find a way to have a reference point and know that what we are doing is not completely our own thing but at the same time be free with it. Otherwise, it’s dead; it’s meaningless.
THC: How do you innovate the music you are playing?
OA: It’s always a tricky balance because we as [classical] musicians are playing music that was written oftentimes a long time ago. We are trying to get at nothing more than what the composer was trying to say. That said, if one plays it too literally and does not have a certain freedom in trying to communicate, that doesn’t really go anywhere either. So somehow it’s this kind of magic of music—we somehow connect. Even though most of these people are dead, we somehow connect and feel, [even though] we have no evidence that we’re feeling what they’re feeling…
THC: What mark do you hope to leave on music?
OA: I would just hope that [after] spending a life in music, I could communicate what it was that the composers were after. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s leaving a mark on anything. It’s a difficult question…. I think the greatest musicians are channeling the music so that the focus is not on them but on the greatness of the music, which is what we should always come back to.