Cellist Winona Zelenka Talks About Getting Back To Work

Winona Zelenka (Photos courtesy of the artist)
Winona Zelenka (Photos courtesy of the artist)

Cellist Winona Zelenka, like so many other musicians, is comfortably slipping back into performance mode after the long pandemic.

With the TSO, Winona performs as the Associate Principal Cellist, a position she holds alongside a busy schedule as a solo recitalist and chamber musician.

Along with Marie Bérard, violin, (Concertmaster of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra), Zelenka is a founding member of the Arkel Trio. The ensemble now includes Rémi Pelletier, Associate Principal Viola of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since September 2019.

Trio Arkel was founded in 2008. On their own, as well as in collaboration with a variety of renowned guest artists, they’ve become famous in Toronto for their chamber music series held at the atmospheric Trinity St. Paul’s Church. Since April 2021, the trio has held a series of performances, including livestreams, as well as limited audience situations, all adapted to the conditions of the pandemic.

Now that musical life is regaining its pre-pandemic vitality, we caught up with her to talk about the experience.

Is there anything in particular that helped you survive and maintain your musical life during the pandemic? Were there any lessons learned from it?

Of course during the pandemic things became very difficult, not right away but after a few months when we all realized that this was going to last longer than we thought. In 2020 I did pretty well, feeling like I had needed a break from a really busy musical life that was always hard to balance with being a mother, in particular… and I learned how to record online performances, and I listened to a lot of online things, especially opera which I love.

But, by 2021 I started to lose a lot of steam and also discipline, and it became a lot harder, and it was the few performances we did manage to do during that year that really kept me going, for an audience or not. The big lesson learned is that I need to play with my colleagues, so that I don’t feel as if I’m in some kind of vacuum; that I love and need the musical community I’m a part of.

How adept were you at the online aspect of performing and creating before the pandemic? It’s something many musicians, naturally, weren’t necessarily prepared for.

I had never done any online performing or recording before the pandemic, but I found it a fun challenge, and have not been intimidated by technology on the whole. It felt like when you recorded something to send out with video, that it was a tangible thing, something to hang onto. Also, my husband Ron is a recording engineer and was available to help… ..and to help manage my expectations about how reliable technology is!

What did it feel like to finally get back on stage with a full orchestra and audience with the TSO?

To be back on stage with my colleagues at the TSO was incredibly emotional and intense – I was just so happy to be around them. Then, when we had an audience, it was even more so, just a huge feeling of gratitude that we could play for people again. It was hard mentally when the path from playing for people again to full performances was jagged and interrupted, and there were feelings of hopelessness for everyone; but thankfully things are better now.

Trio Arkel recently (in October) added new member Rémi Pelletier. How has the transition gone, and what drew you to ask him to participate?

Marie and I have been so happy that Rémi agreed to join Trio Arkel! He felt like a great fit for us in terms of his beautiful rich sound, his experience in chamber music, and his lovely personality. He has a rare combination of great talent and ease that we admire, and the three of us together feel like we’ve always been a team.

I’ve seen the video from last summer of you performing a special arrangement of Scarborough Fair you created with your husband Ron Searles. Are there any plans for more collaborations? Is arranging and perhaps composing something you are also pursuing?

Ron and I had actually wanted to do a whole short program of guitar and cello duos, and we picked out some of our favorite songs – but Scarborough Fair was the only one we managed to perfect before life started revving up again and we both became busy; in fact, he never stopped being very busy, so I was lucky he had time at all! It took me forever to create the cello arrangement, as I’d never done it before, so I’m not sure I could do it again… but if I did, it would be a family affair, a way for us to connect.

Do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?

Our final concert for the Trio Arkel 21/22 season will be on Monday June 6th at 7:30 pm at Trinity St. Paul’s Center; we’ve had one postponement of this program because of COVID, but amazingly we found another date where everyone was free. It features an incredible piece with narrator, harp and string quartet by Caplet, as well as the Ravel Quartet which is always a hit. Next season is our 10th, and I couldn’t be proud of all the great performances we have to look back on, many of which are online and available for anyone to hear.

Tickets to Trio Arkel’s next performance Legend on June 6th can be purchased here.


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Latest posts by Anya Wassenberg (see all)
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