Rhonda Rider, professor of cello and head of chamber music for Boston Conservatory at Berklee, lists musical experiences on her résumé not found on those of many cellists. Her musical passions lie in chamber music and performing new works by living composers, and she’s played countless concerts with the Lydian String Quartet, a group she cofounded in the 1980s, the Triple Helix Piano Trio, and other ensembles in concert halls across the globe. But she’s also performed in the wilderness of the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest National Park.
“I saw an ad for an artist-in-residence at the Grand Canyon and figured they’d want painters or photographers, but called to ask if they would consider a cellist,” Rider says. “The person on the phone encouraged me to apply, and I got it.” Rider then commissioned new works for solo cello and traveled to Grand Canyon National Park to learn and perform the music.
“I lived in the park on the second floor of a visitor center overlooking the canyon,” she recalls. “It was unbelievable. I was there in October 2010 practicing and Skyping with the composers, then I would go to scenic locations around the park to play.” She also gave a more formal lecture and concert in which she discussed the new pieces. Rider did a similar residency at the Petrified Forest National Park in 2015. To date, these projects have yielded 18 new works from a variety of composers. “The pieces are short—between four and 10 minutes long—and there is a lot of variety,” she says. “One piece is very sweet and tonal and the range goes from there to what you might call noise music,” Rider shares. It should be noted that for the outdoor concerts, she played a carbon fiber cello, not her prized 1760 instrument by Italian luthier Carlo Landolfi.
Rider grew up in Michigan with parents who were both violinists and music educators. “They played in a string quartet, and when I was a child I would watch the cellist play for hours,” she recalls. Rider took up the cello as a teen and later earned her undergraduate performance degree at Oberlin and master’s at Yale where she studied with legendary cellist Aldo Parisot.
During her last year at Yale, she learned about an audition for a quartet-in-residence at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Rider, another Yale student, and two friends from New England Conservatory hurriedly formed a string quartet. “We had the audacity to rehearse for five hours one day and then present ourselves as a group,” Rider muses. “We auditioned for Robert Koff, an original member of the Juilliard String Quartet, and he took us on.” The residency for the newly minted Lydian String Quartet at Brandeis involved teaching lessons, playing works by composition students and faculty composers, and playing in the university’s orchestra. They rehearsed four hours a day, six days a week, and received coaching twice a week. Soon they began playing competitions and won the coveted Naumburg Award, among others.
In 2002, she joined the Boston Conservatory faculty as a cello professor and coordinator of chamber music. She now heads the strings department too. Rider guides her students in many areas. “Of course we work on technique and repertoire, but they also need to find out how to build a career,” she says. “It’s important for them to explore many things, and that’s why the merger with Berklee is very exciting. They can play with a film score orchestra or for musical theater, dance, or opera and decide what to do.”
Rider’s spring semester ended with a flurry of concerts with BocoCelli, a cello octet she formed with seven of her students. This summer she will coach and perform contemporary music at festivals in Vermont and Upstate New York as well as mentor the Asian Youth Orchestra in Hong Kong.
As a labor of love, she is preparing to release a recording of two Gabriel Fauré sonatas. “He wrote them late in life and they’re really amazing,” she says. “[Pianist] Judith Gordon and I have played them for years, and we finally recorded them. I’m not doing this to make a huge profit. ...I have a day job.”