Doug Robinson: 'A wonderful violin geek,' Ralph Matson soon to reach 30 years on the job

Published: Tuesday, May 27 2014 2:50 a.m. MDT

Concertmaster Ralph Matson rehearses with the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, April 30, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In the time that Ralph Matson has held down the first chair in the Utah Symphony, Jerry Sloan and Karl Malone have come and gone, Larry Miller built an empire and left the house, five Utah governors passed through the office, and three conductors have held the baton.

With none of the fanfare that was accorded any of the above, Matson has quietly served as concertmaster of the Utah Symphony since 1985. Next year will mark his 30th year on the job.

“It’s a long tenure,” he says. “For a player, landing a job in a major orchestration is a destination.”

Why would he want to do anything else? He became smitten with the violin as a child and never lost his passion for it. Ask him what he does besides music and he says: “My hobby is the violin. If I were not doing this for a living, I would still be doing it. I think about it every day — the idea of having this obsession and making a living doing that is fantastic.”

His wife, Barbara Scowcroft, gets to the point: “He’s a wonderful violin geek.”

He briefly considered serving as a Little League baseball coach but thought better of it — what if something happened to his hands?

During his college years, he studied violin under the legendary Joseph Silverstein, a Detroit native who was concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 22 years and later became director of the Utah Symphony. As Matson tells it: “When I was around him I would see him practice or find time to practice. It was the same kind of reaction you get from someone who is trying to sneak food. It was a guilty pleasure. The sense of obsession, the sense that he loved doing this and he wanted to do it more and, oh, my goodness, here’s 20 minutes I can practice. It was as if someone left a great dessert out.”

Matson’s parents were not musicians — his father was a Detroit policeman — but they loved classical music, and a local classical-music radio station was frequently heard playing in the background of their home, a primer for Matson’s eventual passion. There was a public school program in which musical instruments were demonstrated in assemblies. During one such assembly the violin was the featured instrument, and just like that Matson was infatuated. He started violin lessons at 8 — “Long in the tooth these days,” he says. Months later, he heard a local orchestra perform Mozart’s violin concerto in D major.

“That was when I was hooked,” he says.

He attended public schools and studied violin privately. As he puts it, “From that point on, all the doors that opened were opened by music and the violin.” The violin gave him his education, his vocation and even his wife.

He won a music scholarship to Oberlin College and later completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Yale and a master’s degree at the Yale School of Music. He spent one year as a substitute player for the Minnesota Orchestra and the following year as a full-time player for the Cleveland Orchestra, and a year later he returned to the Minnesota Orchestra as assistant concertmaster. After eight years there, he became concertmaster of the Utah Symphony.

Even after all these years on the job, he studies his craft with the intensity of a hungry student. He practices daily, usually with his border collie Major resting his head on the violinist’s foot. He plays through scales, works arduously over difficult passages of music, hones his physical skills and learns or reviews music that he will play with the symphony.

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