SALT LAKE CITY — Seventy years ago, in a scene straight out of “The Music Man,” a peddler renting musical instruments knocked on a dairy farmer’s door in Idaho.
“Dad came in and said he told the guy at the door I’d play violin,” remembers Jack Ashton, “That’s as much say as I had in the matter.”
The Ashtons' farm was eight miles north of Pocatello, in Tyhee, a town with one blinking yellow light, “so you had to slow down to 50 to go through it.”
Tyhee had no movie theatre, no bowling alley, and definitely no orchestra. Jack spent his first eight years dreaming of playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, not a violin.
The peddler’s sales pitch rearranged his dreams. It soon became obvious that Jack had a gift. His parents sent him to Pocatello for semi-private lessons, then private lessons in Idaho Falls. By the time he was a teenager, they’d sold the farm and moved to Salt Lake City, where Jack enrolled at Olympus High School and made first-chair violinist in the all-state orchestra.
That caught the attention of Maurice Abravanel, legendary conductor of the Utah Symphony, who recruited Ashton, once he’d finished an LDS mission to Germany, a year in the U.S. Army, and earned his college degree at the University of Utah, into his orchestra, where he spent the next 49 years.
One unlikely knock on the door caused all that — and plenty more, because you could make a very strong argument that no one in the history of the state has done more for young violinists in Utah than the farm kid from Idaho.
In addition to playing year-round in the Utah Symphony, he taught orchestra part-time for 35 years at Olympus High, his alma mater, and for the past 31 years he’s been director of the Young Artist Chamber Players, an organization he set up with his brother Ted in 1985 for the purpose of “helping good kids play the hard stuff and get better.”
If every teenager he’s taught, encouraged and inspired were to pick up his or her bow and start playing, you could hear them around the world. And they’d sound pretty good.
Especially the Young Artist Chamber kids. The elite string orchestra includes about 40 players who are accepted after auditions. (Another 80 young violinists make up three additional orchestras sponsored by the organization). They meet at Highland High School once a week, honing their skills under the direction of the man who performed with the symphony for nearly a half-century.
It’s not a labor of lucre. The YACP and its sister orchestras form a nonprofit that qualifies for sales-tax-for-arts assistance. Student tuition is a more-than-reasonable $180 a year. All concerts are free to the public. Ashton and the other directors get their expenses covered and not much else. When they go on concert tours to Europe, something they normally do every three years, the students pay their own way, often through fundraisers (to contribute or learn more, go to youngartistchamberplayers.org).
“It’s not a moneymaker,” explains Jack’s wife of 47 years, Marie, the Young Artist Chamber Players president and herself an accomplished pianist. “Jack’s always been involved because he loves teaching the kids and being with them. His payday is the satisfaction he gets from that.”
At 78, Jack is scaling back a bit. He retired from the symphony and teaching at Olympus four years ago — reducing his teaching commitments to private lessons and a drive every Thursday to Ephraim, where he’s an adjunct professor of music at Snow College.
But with the young artists he’s still going strong as ever.
Sunday, March 20, he’ll conduct the group in its annual spring concert at Westminster College — a longtime supporter of the young artists — at 7:30 p.m. Next month, on Apr. 15-16, they’ll perform in southern Utah. On May 8 they’ll again be at Westminster. And in June and July, they’ll take their triennial trip to Europe, with 10 concerts scheduled in 20 days, including a stop at the Salzburg music festival made famous in “The Sound of Music.”
Jack says it might be his last trip to Europe. “I can’t do this forever,” he winks, before adding that a doctor friend in France has warned him that nothing accelerates the aging process more than to stop doing what you’ve always been doing, especially something you’re good at and you enjoy.
“So we’ll see,” he concludes, 70 years since he first picked up a violin. Unlike then, all the say in the matter will be up to him.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.