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Larry, the Utah Symphony's principal trombonist, and Roberta, associate principal violist, forgot about the request their middle son made after he saw superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing on "Sesame Street." But Matt didn't forget. Roberta was cleaning up after his fifth birthday party when he asked, "Well, where is it? Where's my cello?"
Now, nearly 14 years later, Matt is an accomplished cellist who recently completed his first year at New York City's prestigious Juilliard School. He will give a recital in his hometown Monday before heading to the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, where he will play chamber music with his parents.
Music lessons were a given in the Zalkind household - Benjamin, 20, studied the horn but hasn't played the instrument since high school; Aaron, 12, plays the trombone - but "Larry and I have never been the kind of parents to push music on our kids," Roberta said. "We wanted them to be very well-rounded people."
"Matt was so into music at the youngest age," Larry noted, remembering how his son carried a Fisher-Price cassette player everywhere he went as a little boy.
Another clue came when the family was giving then-Utah Symphony music director Joseph Silverstein, one of the world's top violinists, a ride home after a morning concert for young people. Silverstein had played Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," and 4-year-old Matt was sitting next to him in the back seat humming one of the tunes. "Joey looks at Matt and says, 'You're singing my ornament!' " Larry said. The boy was humming a bit of ornamentation that only Silverstein played; he had listened to Silverstein's recording of the piece repeatedly.
"I kind of always had the idea in the back of my mind that I would be serious," Matt said. "It was early in high school that I decided it's what I wanted to do."
He played on the nationally syndicated radio program "From the Top" with a string quartet, then won an audition to perform on the Utah Symphony's "Salute to Youth" concert and made the national finals of the American String Teachers Association competition. He spent much of his senior year of high school traveling across the country, auditioning at various schools and deciding where and with whom to study. "I was forced to drop a couple of AP classes; I was gone well over a month doing auditions," he said. He seriously considered the Cleveland Institute of Music, the New England Conservatory, Northwestern University in Chicago and the Colburn School in Los Angeles before deciding on Juilliard, where he studies with Orion Quartet cellist Timothy Eddy. (Utah Symphony cellist Pegsoon Whang is his principal teacher in Salt Lake City; he also studied for nine years with Richard Hoyt.)
"You just have to experiment and take lessons from all the teachers," Matt said. "You have to have the mind-set that you're auditioning the teachers, not impressing the teachers."
"A lot of students aren't going to auditions knowing they're going to get in," Larry said. "I knew he was going to get in."
"I didn't!" Matt said. He said 9 percent of applicants were accepted into his class.
"If he'd had a passion for music and we felt he wasn't going to be competitive, I don't know what we would do," Larry noted. "Fortunately, we haven't had to deal with that."
Larry said he was impressed with Juilliard's orientation program, which brings freshmen to New York two weeks before regular classes begin to "teach them how to live in New York." The students attended a Mets game, toured different parts of town and received a primer in riding the subway. Matt said he loves New York, but skiing and his strong interest in environmental science always will keep him coming back to Utah. There are also a handful of Utahns at the school; pianist Evan Shinners, whom Matt had not met despite growing up a few miles apart, has become a close friend.
In addition to cello lessons with Eddy, Matt takes courses in music theory, music history, ear training, piano fundamentals and humanities. He also plays in the orchestra and in small ensembles with other students. He was one of four finalists in the school's concerto competition, and the only undergraduate to make the finals. He is keeping his career options open: "I really enjoy playing in the orchestra; I really love chamber music as well, but there's practically no money in that field."
"Matt has an incredible work ethic," Roberta said. "He knows what he wants and what it takes to meet those goals."
His recital Monday includes sonatas by Boccherini and Prokofiev, a virtuoso piece by Paganini and the Schumann Cello Concerto; Heather Conner of the University of Utah faculty will be at the piano.
He and his parents will perform a trio by Vincent Persichetti at the Grand Teton festival next week. The festival is close to the family's hearts; Roberta and Larry have played there nearly every summer since 1981, and Matt took his first steps there.
"It will definitely be a new perspective being onstage," Matt said, adding it's "kind of weird to sit down for a rehearsal" with his parents.
"It's an honor and a privilege to play with such a great musician," Roberta said, noting she feels an additional connection to her son as a fellow string player. "He's a fantastic musician in his own right. I'd choose him to play with even if he wasn't my son."
* Cellist Matthew Zalkind will give a free recital in the Main Library auditorium, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City, on Monday
at 7 p.m. Pianist Heather Conner will accompany him.