Associate Principal Cello Melissa Brooks-Rubright is a New York City native. She began her cello studies at the age of four, and from 1977 through 1988 participated in the Juilliard School's pre-college division program. Brooks-Rubright later enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music, where she received her bachelor's degree in 1992. She joined the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in September of that same year. During her time in St. Louis she has worked under three music directors: Leonard Slatkin, Hans Vonk, and David Robertson. She also married Dan Rubright, a guitarist and educator who occasionally performs with the Orchestra. Melissa and Dan's son, Aidan, was born in 2002.
In 2005, Brooks-Rubright moved into the "inner circle" — those musicians who sit nearest the conductor in performance — through an open audition process when she was appointed Associate Principal. The move only intensified the feeling of focused energy that Brooks-Rubright experiences on stage, especially when David Robertson is on the podium. She shared her thoughts about that energy, and other performance matters, over coffee in a recent interview with Playbill.
Playbill: Can you describe a particular performance where the experience on stage felt transcendent or transformative or sublime or whatever language you might use to describe it?
Melissa Brooks-Rubright: I couldn't come up with an example of a single performance, but I know what it feels like. It happens so rarely. It's not so much a feeling of transcendence, but the feeling of coming together. You know when you take two notes and they're not played in tune? Then when they're perfectly in tune you hear all the overtone sound? In that brief moment when that happens — that's what it's like. In that brief moment you are in this altered state.
I know when I play chamber music or solo concerts, or maybe higher stress orchestra concerts, my hearing is different. I hear things in different ways than in rehearsal, which can be scary, because I'm concentrating so highly, I might hear things I haven't heard before.
David Robertson is a great example, because playing for him — especially now that I'm up front — you can't not be in the moment when he's conducting. He's so about drawing everybody into what he's doing. He goes into the moment so thoroughly that you just can't not be there.
John Adams's Harmonielehre on opening weekend 2005 — that was amazing. That was intense concentration and a great piece. I wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did. That's the concentration. And playing Carnegie Hall, that's when I'll hear things differently. The stress is greater. I'm not sure how it feels physically, but mentally there's an intense focus.
For example, when I played Pierre Boulez's Messagesquisse in the spring of 2005 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts — that's one of the hardest pieces I've ever played as a soloist. It took months to learn. The ending tempo is 130 beats per minute and I had to start learning it at 40. It's a long, long process. I was reading the music, but I was definitely not aware of what was around me — the venue, the audience, nothing. I was in a different place. It took so much concentration I was definitely in some altered muscle-memory place. You have to shut off what's around you to get that kind of focus.
Playbill: When you talk about these altered states, I hear you saying that it is less a sense of things opening, but very concentrated, and in that concentrated moment things being very alive. Is that a good description?
Brooks-Rubright: Yes, very concentrated but not in a restrictive sort of way. It is very open because it's free from restraints. You get into that frame of mind where you are more free because you're not worried about stuff. 'Auto-pilot' is a bad word, but it is sort of like that, in a good way. The Boulez is the best example I can think of. There could have been a fire and I don't know if I would have been aware of it until somebody dragged me away. My brain was literally somewhere else.
Playbill: Athletes have this phrase "in the zone."
Brooks-Rubright: Absolutely. That definitely happens. It's hard to describe that in an orchestra, because it's so hard to get all those people in the zone at once. You might personally feel like you're in the zone one night, but what does it matter if 50 other musicians aren't there?
There are a million books — Inner Game of Tennis, Inner Game of Music — all these books that I've read about how to get there. And there's no way to get there every time. It's an X-factor thing. You can practice until you are blue in the face, but all the energy just has to be right. Of course, practicing does help!
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.