Balance is in the Balcony

This article appears in the spring 2020 issue of STILLPOINT magazine: “Generation Gordon.”

Matthew Rhee ’22 fell in love with opera when he was in sixth grade. For the entire year, he ate lunch in Miss Harriet Dogan’s class with a handful of other middle schoolers who would rather watch La Bohème than relive their own “romantic tragedies” in the school cafeteria.

That year, Miss Dogan took her young opera enthusiasts to the New York Metropolitan Opera twice. Rhee remembers climbing the stairs to the balcony with binoculars hanging around his neck, slack-jawed at the first sight of chandeliers and red carpet. Even today, when he goes to the Met, his favorite spot is the balcony. From there, he can see everything—the stage performers and the orchestra musicians (the latter of which are not visible to those with the “best” seats).

It wasn’t until Rhee was a senior in high school that he dreamt of swapping out his seat in the balcony for a chair in the pit. One of his former cello teachers had scored a spot in the Met Orchestra and invited Rhee to tour the place he’d always watched from above. “When I looked up at the audience from the pit, it was like God had opened my eyes. He showed me what I truly wanted deep down inside, even though it was a longshot,” says Rhee.

At that point in his life, he’d been playing the cello for 10 years and going to the opera for seven. But most of his musical journey hadn’t afforded him this kind of clarity—or possibility.

“My music journey was pretty tough,” says Rhee. “The competition, especially in New York City, is very fierce. I was always a couple of steps behind, and it was really hard to see all my friends go ahead of me. I almost quit cello.” Even though he had achieved so much—like being accepted into the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-conservatory program and Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute—he still had this aching feeling that he wasn’t good enough, even though he loved to play. The criticism he’d received over the years had accumulated.

Without realizing it, he’d traded his balcony seat for one in the front row. He was closer to the music than ever before, but he could no longer see where it was coming from.

Coming to Gordon was Rhee’s way of returning to the balcony. “I chose Gordon because I wanted to be in a liberal arts school with lots of majors. Not just music. After what I’d experienced, I didn’t want to go to a college that had a culture of fierce competition. At Gordon, all of the musicians lift each other up. This is how music should be.”

In a more balanced environment, Rhee actually grew in artistry. He’s doing incredible things in the world of music. Last summer, he performed on Broadway in New York City for a special fundraising event, alongside Broadway stars from Anastasia, Frozen and Mamma Mia. And he traveled to Ukraine with fellow string majors and music professors to give music lessons to a group of Ukrainian middle- and high schoolers, most of whom had never held an instrument before.

“These experiences continue to teach me to have fun with music, to see music as a collaboration and not a competition.”