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21-Year-Old Yale Student Becomes Principal Cellist In Major Orchestra

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
Henry Shapard and VSO Concertmaster Nicholas Wright

Virtual commencement celebrations began over the weekend for the Yale University class of 2020. Among those graduating is Henry Shapard. The 21-year-old was recently appointed principal cellist of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in Canada. That makes him one of the youngest principal cellists of a major orchestra in North America. 

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Even more unusual, Shapard was not a music major. The young cellist is about to receive a history degree from Yale.

“I think history is an incredibly broad discipline,” Shapard said. “And above all, it teaches you a way of thinking that encourages memory in terms of being able to make connections. And that idea of memory is so important to music as well.” Shapard said that as a history major, he feels lucky “to notice that, generally, every generation faces some big challenge. And I think what I’m realizing at this particular moment is that I would have perhaps been naive to think that my generation would get skipped over.”

Shapard said right now the coronaviruspandemic is challenging just about everything, making this period in his life feel kind of muddled.

“Because I've done my final assignments for school, my final tests, and my first projects for the job in Vancouver, all sitting in my bedroom,” Shapard said, as he spoke from his parents’ home in Westchester County, New York.

Sitting in his bedroom probably wasn’t as easy as it sounds. He recently finished a short tenure as principal cellist of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, a position he held at the same time he was still taking classes at Yale. Although always fascinated with music, Shapard said he was a late bloomer as far as deciding to commit to it professionally.

Because of the pandemic, the Vancouver Symphony has been featuring its musicians in digital performances. Shapard explained how he and VSO concertmaster Nicholas Wright performed a version of Bach’s “Air on the G String.”

“I would record the lower two parts, so the cello and the viola part,” Shapard said. “And then he would record both violin parts. It's kind of like building Legos. So, you start from the bottom up. And then we layered each successive part.”

Shapard said music has the power to ground both listeners and performers in their own personal memories.

“We can all think about songs or different pieces of music that have meaning to us because of particular moments in our lives.”

Even a moment as historically challenging as this.

Yale’s virtual commencement was shared online Monday morning.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.

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