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Larissa Maestro Works In Concert With Nashville’s Roots And Beyond

Kaitlyn Raitz

When Yo-Yo Ma performed in her hometown some time ago, Larissa Maestro was so awestruck that she brazenly bolted backstage when the performance was over, found the Grammy-winning legend, and told him that she too played the cello. “I’d like to shake your hand,” he said. Followed by “Where are your parents?”

Larissa, backstage crasher, was 12.

“I don't know! I have no idea where they are,” she recalls saying. “And he was like, ‘Cool. You're just gonna hang out with me until we find them.’ And he babysat me for like ten minutes before my parents were let backstage. So now I have a little story about how Yo-Yo Ma (is) the kindest man in the world.”

Maestro still plays the cello, and like her early hero she’s played it in and beyond traditional classical concert settings and repertoire. Since arriving in Nashville in 2007, she’s built a rich and varied life as a studio and stage musician, with a long list of live and recorded credits that includes Margo Price, Brandi Carlile, Kyshona Armstrong, the Lone Bellow, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Eric Church. She’s been part of high profile recording sessions for John Legend, Mickey Guyton, Wanda Jackson, and Ms. Lauryn Hill. And in recent years she’s had a particularly strong bond working with Allison Russell, last year’s three-time Grammy nominee - who calls Maestro “one of the most extraordinary musicians it has ever been my privilege to know - and one of the best people.” Russell engaged Maestro to arrange the strings for her next album, which is due later this year. Because of her extensive work in roots and folk music, Maestro won Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2022 Americana Honors and Awards, the first cellist and, as a Philippine-American, the first woman of color to do so.

As a composer, Maestro works in realms far beyond the stages of the Ryman and Newport Folk Festival. Her works have been performed by the ALIAS Chamber Ensemble, Lockeland Strings, La Vie Quartet, and the Nashville Concerto Orchestra, which she co-founded. Two of her original pieces supported the choreography of the new Nashville Ballet production Anthology in February. Coming soon, Maestro enjoys the most important night so far of her composing career, with an entire concert of her works set for March 26 as part of the ECHO Chamber Music Series at The Parthenon in Centennial Park. Find more information and tickets here.

In Episode 238 of The String, we talk about how Larissa struggled to find the instrument that best spoke to her as a girl growing up in the college town of Ithaca, NY. Building on a classic Suzuki string background and a love of pop music, Maestro attended Berklee College of Music in Boston as new prospects opened up. She encountered the world of progressive stringband music with its innovative rhythmic chopping techniques. She saw Zoë Keating play cello with Imogen Heap, remembering “that was so wonderful and exciting to see a cellist using (looping) technology - also exciting to see just two women on stage making all of this sound together, and really pushing the boundaries of what we're sort of taught the cello was supposed to do.” When her hopes of going deep into film scoring were set aside after encountering a nearly all-male, non-inviting class atmosphere, she found other outlets, studying improvisation with cellist Eugene Friesen (of the Paul Winter Consort) and voice. “I've been singing my whole life,” she says. “So I was able to expand my range as a vocalist (at Berklee) as well. I was able to take songwriting classes. So I was really able to stretch myself and see what I was capable of as a musician.”

Then it was time to figure out where to pursue a life and living, and by the mid 2000s, friends and colleagues were raving about Nashville. Despite a bit of anxiety about plunging into the South, she found a welcoming environment. “When I finally (came), it made a lot of sense, like right away,” she says. “I met people very quickly who were interested in doing things that I was interested in doing. And I didn't even really know whether I wanted to be a side player or a songwriter. I just knew that I wanted to be able to make music all the time.”

That worked out, because Larissa has pursued everything from 90s covers (in My So-Called Band) and candy-coated pop (in Poly) to commercial scoring, TV song placements, and voice-over work. Perhaps above all is session work, where she says she’s enjoyed a rewarding collaborative environment that’s guided her choices about where, when and with whom to work. “I've come to a place where I really value and understand how strong the community is in Nashville,” she says, noting the contrast to the competition-minded ethos of the classical music business. “That's something that you see very clearly in the way that Allison Russell puts together her band, which is like a rotating cast of different women, where the trust is really put in the musicians. We're all seen as whole people, whole creative beings who have our own experiences and our own skill sets…And that way of looking at it feels very alive and well in Nashville right now.”

Maestro will be part of Monday night’s Love Rising concert at Bridgestone Arena to raise funds and support for the campaign against new Tennessee anti-LGBTQ laws. Then she’ll head out for the most ambitious touring of her career so far with Irish pop rocker Hozier. And if you’re a Star Trek nerd, you’ll want to check out her podcast Into The Wormhole, co-hosted with Lauren Lowen.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>