Utah Symphony: Enthusiasm links cellist's many interests

For Selberg, music and golf are worthy of equal commitment.
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Utah Symphony principal cellist Ryan Selberg describes his weekly golf game as "spelling 'golf' backwards -- I flog the ball."

"I enjoy the exercise, the fresh air and camaraderie of my golf buddies," Selberg said. "Every once in a while, I'll make a good shot, and that keeps me coming back." Fortunately, his cello playing is significantly better.

Golf buddy Don Kramer, a Utah Symphony violinist, got him hooked on the game 16 years ago. "Ryan approaches golf the same as everything else he does -- wholeheartedly," Kramer said, adding his colleague gives as much thought to his golf shots as to how the cellos should sound in a certain passage.

Selberg is a big man, over 6 feet tall, but his size may fool people. "Ryan is a very sensitive player," Kramer said. A familiar face in the orchestra since Maurice Abravanel hired him 34 years ago, Selberg will solo in Park City's St. Mary's Church on Aug. 12 as part of the Deer Valley Music Festival.

For the concert, he will play Nikolai Miaskovsky's Cello Concerto, a work championed by Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and an important part of the cello repertoire. "The absolutely beautiful lyrical lines are what appeals to me most about the work," Selberg said. He bought the sheet music in Germany during the symphony's 1986 European tour and was pleased when conductor Jerry Steichen --- the Utah Symphony's newly named principal pops conductor -- thought it would make a good addition to this concert.

The concerto isn't a technical showpiece but a brooding, melancholy work that has much in common with Rachmaninoff's musical language and holds an emotional bond with Elgar's Cello Concerto. Both were written during world wars -- Elgar's at the end of World War I and Miaskovsky's during World War II -- and were the result of composers looking at a world that would never be the same.

Steichen, speaking by phone from New York, called the concerto "breathtakingly emotional." An opening bassoon solo sets a mood of longing and loss. The two-movement work is cyclic, with the opening theme returning at the end. The concert will open with the first movement of Mozart's familiar "Eine kleine Nachtmusik," a lighter work that will set the stage for the more sobering but musically exquisite cello concerto. It will conclude with Dvorák's Serenade for Strings in E major. The serenade's four short movements flow with richness and warmth. "I can't think of better music for a summer evening. The St. Mary's concerts are always magical," Steichen said.

As Selberg considers his long tenure with the Utah Symphony, he recalls his audition, when he was invited to play with the orchestra during a rehearsal, played some solo passages, then fielded some questions from musicians. At the end of the day, he was told he had the job. "Abravanel was looking not only for good musicians but good people. Hopefully, I was 'good people.' "

Now auditions are more crowded, with 30 to 40 musicians applying for each opening, few of whom are lucky enough to get a 15-minute onstage blind audition.

Selberg, now in his 60s, was raised in the Los Angeles area. He began playing cello in fifth grade after his first choices, trumpet and drums, were denied by his teacher, who had an available cello.

He played in his school's orchestra while taking private lessons. His first teacher claimed Selberg had absolutely no talent whatever, but his mother didn't believe this assessment and found another teacher, Patricia Thompson Pinkston, who had played with the Utah Symphony before moving to the Los Angeles area. Years later, at a "side-by-side" concert with a youth orchestra, Selberg found himself sitting next to a young cellist who also had studied with Pinkston, making him what he called his "musical nephew."

The Los Angeles Philharmonic was his first career stop. He played for two years under Zubin Mehta before leaving to do some Hollywood studio work and then moving to Alberta for a position as principal cellist with the Edmonton Symphony.

Over the years, Selberg has accumulated three cellos. One is 300 years old and has a dark, covered sound. Another is a modern instrument -- a copy of the cello Yo Yo Ma plays, built by David Burgess. It has a brighter sound, making it easier to be heard in solos with the full orchestra. The cello he plays the majority of the time is another contemporary instrument built to resemble the qualities of the famous Guarneri del Gesù violin.

"Having three instruments is not a luxury for a professional musician," he said. "If something happens to one, it is important to be able to replace it with an instrument of the same caliber."

Once, the head of Selberg's bow snapped off during a concert just before some solo passages. He whispered for his stand partner to lend him his bow. By the time everything was sorted out, they were both hopelessly lost. Fortunately, the conductor noticed and helped them find their place. When the work was finished, Selberg left the stage holding the broken bow in front of him like a dead rat.

All in a career.