04/04/2014 02:11 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

A Cellist in the Clouds

Exhausted, I plopped into seat 9A on JetBlue's flight from Boston back home to L.A., sick with laryngitis after leading two career seminars. A handsome man placed a large case overhead, slipped into 9B and said hello just as the pilot announced that the L.A. Philharmonic was aboard, to passengers' loud cheers. After taking off, as red dusk turned black, we witnessed the majesty of the heavens. When I asked him what he did, his answer ignited another kind of magic -- his journey as a talented musician to the world renowned orchestra. How could I resist interviewing him?

Ben Hong has played the cello for the L.A. Phil for twenty years, his first and only full time job since he graduated from USC. For that first audition, he remembers preparing the standards, Bach and Beethoven, for three months, then playing first behind a screen and then in front for the final round. Accepted immediately, he has advanced to become the second cellist, the assistant principal among eleven. His priceless cello, a 1707 Guarneri that belongs to the orchestra, was riding above our heads.

As a nine-year-old boy born in Taiwan, playing the cello was like being in an arranged marriage. His musical father, a strict disciplinarian, made obvious sacrifices for his private lessons. He won the National Cello Competition three times between the ages of ten and twelve. Then at thirteen, he left Taiwan for New York's Julliard -- without speaking English, without any friends -- knowing that, like death, he was leaving home forever. The only communication then was by mail and later, family visits. I can barely imagine his heroic struggle to learn English, study and master the cello, and find a new sense of belonging. Then when his teacher, Lynn Harrell, moved to USC, he followed.

I asked about his own son, another talented musician, now twelve. Is Ben the same kind of father as his was to him? Not at all -- maybe superficially, he said with a smile. His father had given tough love, leaving no choice but to practice hard. Yet he always felt loved and supported, a foundation that has allowed him to grow. Ben, in turn, wants his own son to be free to choose to study, but also to understand that with such freedom comes intense responsibility. As a parent and teacher, he has noticed that children now don't always feel the same kind of deep love and support as he did from his family. He explained that it's not the method that parents use to deliver their love, rather their giving it as a gift so that a child can feel understood and encouraged.

How has his own playing changed over the years? He said he learned the technical basics in school but that musical style develops only over time, in his case, twenty years of intense learning lit by passion. During these years, he has played with many other greats such as Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman, Bobby McFerren, and African drummers. He is also featured on the score for the film The Soloist about another Julliard student, Nathaniel Ayres.

When I asked whether music is his calling, he answered that being an artist, in any field, isn't so much a calling as having a higher purpose, something akin to religion, but not religion. When he studies a composition, he sees the codes that composers have written from their mind and essence. His job is to make these dots and lines come alive, translating the notes so that audiences can receive the ecstasy of humanity.

Music has become his companion, especially in hard times, searching for heaven to take him away. When his father was dying, Ben Hong brought his cello to his bedside and played for him, sharing the intense gift that had bound them together beyond words.