L.A. Studio Legends: Cécilia Tsan

Talented Los Angeles-based cellist talks on her career as studio musician in Hollywood, her friendship with Yo-Yo Ma and her experiences playing for John Williams on many film soundtracks and recordings

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Among the studio musicians who are regular members for John Williams’s recordings in Los Angeles in the more recent years, cellist Cécilia Tsan is certainly one of the most luminous and talented of that pool. Born in Versailles (France) from Chinese musician parents, Cécilia started to be immersed in music since a very young age, and began playing at the age of five with the same teacher as her childhood friend Yo-Yo Ma, who continues to be a dear friend and a source of inspiration for her.

Cécilia Tsan with Yo-Yo Ma, a friendship that continues since their childhood (from the private archive of Cécilia Tsan, used under permission)

Cécilia continued her studies to become a professional classical musician during her teenage and youth years. She attended the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, where she studied under the direction of André Navarra and graduated in 1976 and then moved to attend the higher classes, studying with Jean Hubeau and preparing for international competitions. She also attended masterclasses at the Accademia Chigiana di Siena (Italy) and got the Diploma di Merito.

After winning several international contests, Cécilia Tsan started to appear regularly on the French musical scene, but also toured around the world, both as soloist and chamber musician, working with many top French classical artists such as Pascal Rogé, Pierre Amoyal and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. In Paris, she also worked as studio player for a few film and television projects, including scores with Paris-based American composer Marc Marder and future film music superstar Alexandre Desplat.

Cécilia Tsan (Portrait by Lefteris Padavos, used under permission)

In 1991, Cécilia moved to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. She immediately started to perform in concerts, festivals and recitals around California and then across the entire country, playing in such cities as Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the La Jolla Summer-fest. She later became Principal Cellist of the Long Beach Symphony and served in the same position for four years also with the New West Symphony.

Her friendship with Yo-Yo Ma brought her to attend the recording session of the Cello Concerto by John Williams at the Sony Scoring Stage in Culver City in 2001. Since then, Cécilia started to be contracted regularly in the cello section for virtually all John Williams’s scores recorded in Los Angeles, including Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Memoirs of a Geisha, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse and the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Cécilia was also part of the orchestra hand-picked by Williams which recorded the album Across the Stars, the collaboration between the composer and internationally acclaimed violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Cécilia Tsan, John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma enjoy time together after finishing the recording of Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005 (Photo from the private archive of Cécilia Tsan, used under her permission)

Cécilia Tsan performed on literally hundreds of film and television soundtracks recorded in L.A. and has worked with all top film composers such as Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Alan Silvestri, James Newton Howard, Danny Elfman, Randy Newman, David Newman, and many others. She was given a prominent solo part on the score for M.Night Shyamalan’s film After Earth, with music by James Newton Howard.

Besides her intense activity as studio musician, Cécilia continues to devote a lot of time to classical music, playing both as soloist in symphonic repertoire (performing cello standards by Elgar, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Haydn) and chamber concerts. She is artistic director of the Sunday Afternoon Concert series at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, CA, where she also appears regularly as a performer together with other regular L.A. studio musicians such as Sara Andon and Roger Wilkie.

l-r: violinist Roger Wilkie, oboist Leslie Reed, violist Alma Lisa Fernandez, and cellist Cécilia Tsan at the Mount Wilson Observatory concert series

In 2018, she was invited by Van Cliburn Gold Medal winner Italian pianist Simone Pedroni to perform at the Alagna Music Festival, where they played together the three pieces from Memoirs of a Geisha and the Elegy for cello and piano by John Williams. To prepare for these performances, Cécilia and Simone Pedroni were invited by the Maestro himself to play for him, an experience she still recalls as “one of the musical highlights of my entire life.” Cécilia and Simone share a strong musical affinity and the same passion for the music of John Williams.

Pianist Simone Pedroni, composer John Williams and cellist Cécilia Tsan at the Maestro’s house in Los Angeles in 2018 (from the private collection of Cécilia Tsan, used under her permission)

In this conversation, Cécilia Tsan talks about her musical career, the incredible story of her family, her friendship with Yo-Yo Ma and the adventures that brought her finally to Los Angeles becoming one of the top studio musicians in town. She talks in-depth about her experiences with John Williams, being part of his orchestra on many of his recordings and how the composer helped to keep alive the great Hollywood musical tradition. Cécilia also recollects the thrilling experience of performing for the Maestro himself at his own house with friend pianist Simone Pedroni.


Thanks to Cecilia Tsan, for her kindness and generosity. Visit her website ceciliatsan.com for more information about her career and future concert performances.

Special thanks to Simone Pedroni and Elisa Petrarulo for their friendship and support

Cécilia Tsan (Photo © Ambroise Tézenas, used under permission)

List of Musical Excerpts featured during the episode:

. John Williams, “Sayuri’s Theme” from Memoirs of a Geisha (Cecilia Tsan, cello; Simone Pedroni, piano – live performance at Alagna Music Festival, Italy, 2018)
. John Williams, “The Jedi Steps” from Star Wars: The Force Awakens original soundtrack recording (2015)
. James Newton Howard, “Abort Mission” from After Earth original soundtrack recording (2013)
. Johannes Brahms, Piano Concerto No.2 – III. Andante (Cecilia Tsan, solo cello; Paul Badura-Skoda, piano; New West Symphony Orchestra conducted by Boris Brott – live performance from 1999)
. Johann Sebastian Bach, Cello Suite No.1, s.1007, in G Major – I. Prelude (Yo-Yo Ma, cello)
. John Williams, Concerto for Cello and Orchestra – I. Theme and Cadenza (Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by John Williams)
. John Williams, Theme from “PBS Great Performances” (Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by John Williams)
. John Williams, “The Duel” from The Adventures of Tintin (Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles conducted by John Williams)
. John Williams, “Sayuri’s Theme” from Memoirs of a Geisha (Cecilia Tsan, cello; Golden State Pops Orchestra conducted by Steven Allan Fox – live performance at Warner Grand Theatre, San Pedro, CA, 2012)
. John Williams, “A Dream Discarded” from Memoirs of a Geisha (Cecilia Tsan, cello; Simone Pedroni, piano – live performance at Alagna Music Festival, Italy, 2018)
. John Williams, Theme from Seven Years in Tibet original soundtrack recording (1997, Yo-Yo Ma, cello)
. John Williams, “Chiyo’s Prayer” from Memoirs of a Geisha original motion picture soundtrack recording (2005)
. John Williams, “Elegy” for cello and piano (Cecilia Tsan, cello; Simone Pedroni, piano – live performance live performance at Alagna Music Festival, Italy, 2018)
. Max Bruch, Romanian Melody (Cecilia Tsan, cello; Pierre Génisson, clarinet; Timothy Durkovic, piano – live performance at Temple Israel, Long Beach, CA, 2018)
. John Williams, “Finale” from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker original soundtrack recording (2019)
. Ennio & Andrea Morricone, “Love Theme” from Cinema Paradiso (Cecilia Tsan, cello; Simone Pedroni, piano – live performance at Alagna Music Festival, Italy, 2018)
. John Williams, “Going to School” from Memoirs of a Geisha (Yo-Yo Ma, cello; John Williams, piano)
. John Williams, “The Rebellion Reborn”, from Star Wars: The Last Jedi original soundtrack recording (2017)
. John Williams, “Elegy” for cello and piano (Cecilia Tsan, cello; Simone Pedroni, piano – live performance at Alagna Music Festival, Italy, 2018)