Ask any member of a nonprofessional, community orchestra how he or she came to be a player in an all-volunteer ensemble, and chances are good the answer will begin this way: “That’s a long story.”
That’s how Michael Center, principal cellist for Seattle’s Lake Union Civic Orchestra — largely made up of musicians with day jobs in unrelated fields — prefaces his tale.
Center, 47, started playing his instrument at age 9, shortly after moving with his family from Boston to Seattle.
Two years later, he began studying with Toby Saks, the well-regarded founder of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. Center continued working with her through his undergraduate years at the University of Washington, before transferring to the New England Conservatory.
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Center earned his master’s degree at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and went on to join the Sacramento Symphony (now the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra) and spend a decade with the Phoenix Symphony.
That was then.
These days, Center works for Boeing as a project manager for software development supporting the 787 program.
“I left my professional life as a musician kicking and screaming,” he says. “I developed a rare inner-ear condition called hyperacusis, a hypersensitivity to sound. Things that seem simply loud to you are excruciatingly painful to me. It got worse over the years, and of course it was exacerbated being in a professional orchestra. I tried all sorts of treatments. The only thing that worked was when I backed off.”
In 2004, Center left the music world and began taking computer and engineering classes at Arizona State University. After getting his job at Boeing, he didn’t play cello much for a couple of years.
After moving back to Seattle in 2009 with his wife, violist and pianist Annie Chang-Center, music beckoned him again.
Thanks to specially manufactured earplugs (fitted to one’s ear canals) that filter out high frequencies, Center joined the Lake Union Civic Orchestra (LUCO) in 2011, alongside doctors, IT specialists, biotech engineers, students and others who rehearse weekly and perform in four programs each season.
“I jumped back into music with both feet,” Center says. “Being away from the day-to-day rehearsals and frequent performances of a professional orchestra, I can be actively involved in music. I can manage it now.”
Center says he missed the camaraderie of playing with others, as well as the opportunity to explore great repertoire.
Certainly he’ll experience both during LUCO’s 20th anniversary season, beginning Oct. 24 at Town Hall. (Subscriptions are on sale now.) Longtime music director Christophe Chagnard will lead the orchestra through a rich program of music by Mozart, Manuel de Falla and Ottorino Respighi.
The rest of the season includes the world premiere of Chagnard’s own Symphony No. 1.
Center, who also occasionally plays with the likes of Octava Chamber Orchestra and the UW Wind Ensemble, says his job as LUCO’s principal cellist “is to interpret what the conductor wants and make sure that’s passed back to my section. We work out the bowing on a piece, and make sure everyone is on the same page. It’s my responsibility to come to the first rehearsal knowing the part inside out.”
“LUCO is a great mix of people with a wide range of backgrounds, ages and experiences,” Center says, “and that’s one of the things I enjoy about it. Even with all that variety, love and passion for music is our common thread.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org