Get to know the Grossman Ensemble: Ben Melsky, harp

Harpist Ben Melsky in rehearsal


Here at the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, we’re gearing up for the first live Grossman Ensemble concert since 2019! To welcome back our musicians, composers, and audiences, we’ll be introducing (or re-introducing) you to the ensemble members throughout the season. First up, we have Grossman Ensemble harpist, Ben Melsky. Keep reading to find out how many times he’s played the Nutcracker, what he’s reading these days, and what culinary dish he thinks the harp is most like.

How did you become interested in pursuing a career in music? Were there any other fields that you considered?

I started playing when I was 8 years old. My mom had a CD of Cheryl Ann Foulton (wonderful harpist) that she would play at bedtime because I had trouble falling asleep. Several nights into this I asked for harp lessons.

When it came to a career…well it just seemed like what I wanted to do and everything more or less pointed in that direction.

Did I ever really consider anything else? Honestly not really. Now I spend a lot of time as an administrator writing grants, fundraising, planning projects, and fighting with Quickbooks. Maybe I should have taken 1 or 3 accounting classes.

harpist Ben Melsky

What other ways do you like to make music in your life?

The quick answer to this is that I also direct and play in Ensemble Dal Niente and have done other things like played the Nutcracker 250+ times. As much as I love playing, I think I like producing concerts even more. I like thinking about programming, researching composers, finding pieces I particularly want to perform. That is what gets me most excited these days.

Perhaps off topic but more interesting is getting to watch my three-year-old experiment with sound and music at home. He’s curious about things like trains, books, construction, Cars 1 and Cars 3, but when he sits down to “do music” as he says, it’s just really fun to watch him. No baggage, no training. Just play. He has a music backpack filled with a horribly tuned xylophone, a little guitar, a million shaker things, and a tiny 1.5 octave harp that, no kidding, was bought from a Skymall magazine.

What do you like to do in your time away from your instrument?

These days I actually don’t have all that much time with my instrument. Between my Dal Niente job and home life I have relatively little practice time available to me. But when I’m not otherwise working I am very likely doing one of these things:

Reading! Favorite authors are George Saunders, Charles Yu, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon, Lydia Davis. I can’t read just one book at a time, I have to read at least three. Right now I’m reading “The Overstory” by Richard Powers (depressing but not sure?), an illustrated manual to home maintenance (badly written but very informative), and “Several Short Sentences on Writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg (fun). I have always liked books about writing.

Cooking. I love to cook but who isn’t sick of their own cooking by now? Been really into a cookbook called “East” by Meera Sodha lately. Particularly good if, like me, you’ve run out of ideas for tofu. Coffee, good olive oil, red wine. I don’t need too much else.

Exercising! Exercising in my living room during kiddo’s naptime is a daily routine. From the comfort of my blue carpet I imagine myself doing some navy seal / crossfit / strongman workout, but am actually just flinging around a kettlebell and trying not to annoy the neighbors or sweat on the furniture.

What has been your most memorable moment from your time in the Grossman Ensemble?

Honestly there have been so many that I think the truest answer is that it’s always memorable. A few highlights? OK.

  • Tania Leon coaching Michael Lewanski on his conducting
  • Playing a duet with Greg Beyer on berimbau (Rodrigo Bussad)
  • Also Greg Beyer playing a crazy bells-on-timpani combo (JB Lee’s piece)
  • Sitting next to Tim Munroe!
  • Playing microtonal duets with Taimur Sullivan. Two times! (Anthony Cheung and Steve Lehman)
  • Grossman players have GREAT shoes/beards/patterned shirts/taste in Lacroix
  • Still waiting for Dan Pesca to miss a note 

If the harp was a culinary dish, what would it be?

I love this question. I also really love questions along these lines. (If the harp were a love language what would it be? “Touch.” Of course. Then probably “acts of service” for all the schlepping). A pavlova, or something in that universe. Meringues. Whipped dairy things. Like a cloud, kind of sweet, mostly pretty innocent as far as food goes. I’m not a baker so were I to make one it would probably be laced with eggshells. Ok so that’s one take, which plays off the whole angelic harp angle, which is ironic because I don’t particularly like those things.

Quarckbällchen, which translates to “fried cheese ball.” I ate them in Germany one summer. It’s like a sweet cheese donut hole covered in sugar. I’m gonna go with that because it’s a nod to the heavenly textures of a pillowly baked thing but is essentially doughy fried cheese. Seems sinful enough.

What has being in the Grossman Ensemble meant to you? 

I think what I’m trying to get at here is that the Grossman Ensemble is one of those rare occurrences in the world of new music in which the planning, the production, timeline, venue, it’s all set, just as it ought to be, so it gives the players the opportunity to work in a freely creative environment. Musicians worry a lot. We worry about getting enough work, we worry about getting enough work that we like, we worry about work sticking around. The Grossman Ensemble has created the conditions such that those worries aren’t on the table.