[ Interviews: Faculty & Artists ]

Cellist Raman Ramakrishnan:
Why Chamber Music?

July 18, 2019

Cellist Raman Ramakrishnan has played in orchestras, trios, and quartets. Here he talks about the different role a cello plays in each.

Wondering what it’s like to be a faculty member at Norfolk Chamber Music Festival? Cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, who is back for his second summer, and who is married to Norfolk faculty violist Melissa Reardon, shares a bit of a behind-the-scenes look and what it’s like to be a cellist in different kinds of chamber music groups.

First on why he loves it here. “It’s a hallowed place for chamber music,” he says. He’d heard a lot about Norfolk from friends who had attended, including his wife. “They always came back glowing after a summer of intense and fulfilling chamber music,” he says. “I had always heard amazing things about it.”

So when Director Melvin Chen asked him and Reardon to be on the faculty, Ramakrishnan says they didn’t think twice. “Our son comes too. We take over one of the cottages,” Ramakrishnan says. “He can run around on the idyllic campus and explore in the creek. It’s great for the whole family.”

Ramakrishnan’s days alternate between practicing the pieces he’ll be performing (this year he is playing everything from Dohnányi to Schubert in concerts on August 2 and 3) to coaching the Fellows that come to the Festival. “It’s such a treat to play with them,” he says of the Fellows.

Among his top tips for those he coaches is learning how to listen. “You have to listen more intensely than is almost humanly possible,” he says. “When you listen so intensely, you pick up on tiny details.” A colleague, for instance, might put a subtle color on a note that you need to reflect in your accompaniment or in the way you respond when you take over a melody. “It’s the same as in a good conversation, that ability to actually hear not only the surface of the music but the intention behind it,” he says. “It lets you respond in a meaningful way.”

Musicians need to listen when playing in orchestras, too, but there the role is different. “Maybe the job then is to blend in with whatever the section leader is doing,” Ramakrishnan says. “It’s not your own voice. You’re one of many. You’re not totally in charge of the conversation.”

Solo playing is the other extreme. “With an orchestra it can be like chamber music where you respond to the voices of the orchestra in a chamber music kind of way,” he says. “But as a soloist people are looking to you to be the leader of the conversation. That can be a more lonely existence.”

“Chamber music is the best of both worlds,” he sums up. “You’re in charge of your own voice but also in charge of a team and the conversation.”

Ramakrishnan says chamber music chose him as his musical career path rather than the other way around. “It’s something that naturally happened. I was always best at it,” he says, adding he was “not a prodigy soloist type.” When he was 12, he went to Kinhaven Music School in Vermont, where he focused almost primarily on chamber music. 
“I just loved it, for the social aspects as much as anything else,” he says, noting that chamber music was not particularly popular in his public school in Long Island. “To be around kids who really loved this way of making music was great. I never looked back.”

Ramakrishnan is a former founding member of the Daedalus Quartet, which won the grand prize at the 2001 Banff International String Quartet Competition. With the Quartet, he performed coast-to-coast in the United States and Canada, in Japan, Hong Kong, and Panama, and across Europe. In 2011, he formed the Horszowski Trio. He also plays with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra.

“I loved both forms,” he says of the quartet and trio. ”My Quartet I wouldn’t take back any of those years. It’s arguably the greatest repertoire you can play as a string player.”

But after 11 years, he wanted to play different kinds of music. “As a cellist in a quartet you are the rock, the foundation of the group in terms of the sound, the pitch and intonation and often in terms of how the phrase is led. That can be a very fulfilling role but it’s also a role. It changes occasionally, especially in newer music but it is a role. In a trio the role of string players is different. A lot of the harmonic underpinning comes from the piano. It’s also like strings are playing a duo sonata with the piano. There is more freedom for the cello.”

At the same time, he adds. “There’s also less freedom. You’re not in charge of the intonation or harmonic underpinning. Even after eight years, I’m learning how to negotiate that. When do you play tempered intonation with the piano, when do you have more freedom to play more freely with intonation. I’ve had to think differently basically for every note I play in a piano trio based on what piano is playing around me.”

What Ramakrishnan has never had to think about is why he plays the cello. “I still have an image of being four or five and living in New Haven and concerts in Sprague Hall. I still remember the image of the cellist,” he says. ”That’s all I was staring at the entire time. The whole room peeled away. I just really gravitated to the cello from the first moment.”

By Janet Reynolds

Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.