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. —Ralph Matson
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.
“The violin is a difficult instrument,” he says. “It’s never automatic. The most important and difficult presentation we do is the Masterworks series, so I focus on the music for those concerts. It’s a bit of a juggling act. I look at the schedule. If there’s a concert that will be low stress and one that requires a lot of preparation, I’m going to spend a lot of time with it, months ahead. Rehearsals happen quickly. We rehearse on Tuesday and by Saturday night we’ve played two concerts. They are not for learning music. They are for putting stuff together at a polished level.”
It’s convenient that he shares his house with a like-minded companion. After joining the symphony, he became acquainted with Scowcroft, another violinist who has been with the Utah Symphony since 1982. They worked together for years and played in the same quartet. “We had a long friendship and then it became more than that,” he says. They courted for four years and married in 1994. They are one of eight married couples in the symphony.
“It’s lovely,” says Scowcroft. “If we weren’t in the orchestra together, we wouldn’t see each other. I don’t know how some couples do it. The trick is not to bring the politics home. But we are in such a nice period in the history of the orchestra that it’s just very pleasant.”
The answer to your first question — the one everyone asks — is, no, they don’t practice together. “No way!” says Scowcroft. “You have to do it independently.” They go to different parts of the house to work.
Maybe it’s best that no one else is there to listen except the family dog. It’s not as if their house is one eternal concert. Friends once invited the couple to bring their violins and spend a weekend at their lakeside cabin. “You can practice,” they said. Barbara warned them that it wasn’t the musical bliss she imagined. Then the guests began practicing, playing the same passages and scales repeatedly, until their hosts blurted out, “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t realize it! It’s the same thing. I get it now. It’s not what I thought it was like. It’s over and over again.” Says Scowcroft: “We were driving them crazy. I warned her. It’s like weeding the garden, but not as quiet.”
Matson and Scowcroft are both warm, gregarious, humorous people, traits that serve him well as one of the leaders of the orchestra. "Members of the symphony tell me he is remarkably approachable, devoid of ego," says Scowcroft. “People call him and want to play for him, and he coaches and teaches them free. He is incredibly kind and wonderful, a fantastic diplomat. Things can get politically messy, and he tries to see all sides.”
Matson has had job opportunities elsewhere, but he never seriously considered them, at least partly because he can work with his wife and partly because, as his wife says, “He likes to build and he thought he could help build here, especially now with (conductor) Thierry Fischer.”
As lifestyles go, it could be worse. They not only work together at the Utah Symphony, they also have a standing gig each summer in Jackson, Wyo., where Matson serves as concertmaster of the Grand Tetons Music Festival Orchestra.2 comments on this story
About 12 years ago, Matson’s ardor for the violin went to a new, and expensive, level. For the price of a nice home, he bought a violin made by Anselmo Bellosio in Venice, Italy, in 1780, securing it through an agent in Chicago. “This very famous restorative person walked in and handed me the violin and I fell in love,” he says. “It has been a wonderful companion. It was love at first sight. It’s a very good-looking fiddle. I remember the first instant playing on this instrument.”
He doesn’t always take the vintage instrument on stage with him. He also bought a modern violin that he prefers to use when conditions are less than ideal for an 18th-century instrument — outdoor concerts or stages where there is a lot of equipment that could put a ding in the wood. “It is an object of art,” he says.
It’s a happy pairing in the hands of a man who relishes his job of making music every day. “I love doing this,” he says. “I always have.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: email@example.com