In the middle of his career, professional cellist Michael Center left the world of music — “kicking and screaming,” as he recalls it.
Center had been playing since he was 9. His family had just moved from Boston to Seattle, and the preteen was entranced by the instrument’s deep voice and stature.
He went on to the University of Washington, earned a master’s degree in music at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and devoted more than a decade to playing with professional orchestras across the West.
Suddenly, in 2005, Center had to stop. He’d developed hyperacusis, a disorder of the inner ear that made him painfully ultrasensitive to sound. The condition worsened, and treatments failed. Center was forced to quit performing.
Living in Phoenix — he’d come to play with the symphony there — Center studied software development at Arizona State University. This led to landing a job at the Boeing Co. and a return to his home town of Seattle in 2009.
It was here that he found out about special earplugs that fit inside the ear canals. They allowed Center to come back to music; in 2011 he joined the Lake Union Civic Orchestra as principal cello while keeping his job at Boeing. And in 2015 he began what would become frequent stints as guest principal cello with the Port Angeles Symphony.
This week, Center will perform with the Symphony’s Chamber Orchestra, to give its first concerts of 2020 on Friday in Port Angeles and Saturday in Sequim as featured soloist. He and his 23 fellow players will offer a piece by Franz Joseph Haydn, the Cello Concerto in C major.
Center first learned this masterwork when he was a kid — “and the more I’ve played it,” he said, “the more I’ve realized what an amazing piece it is, the different colors it has.”
The concerto, Center added, is all-out “fantastic.”
Friday finds the orchestra at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 301 Lopez Ave., Port Angeles; Saturday’s concert will take place at Trinity United Methodist Church, 100 S. Blake Ave., Sequim. Both start at 7 p.m. with tickets at $15 for general admission at brownpapertickets.com, Port Book and News in Port Angeles and the Symphony office at 360-457-5579.
As with all chamber orchestra concerts, youngsters 16 and under are admitted free with a paying adult.
Also on the program are two works chosen by Port Angeles Symphony conductor and music director Jonathan Pasternack: Alessandro Scarlatti’s Sinfonia in F major and the Suite for Strings by Frank Bridge.
The Bridge piece is a lovely one, Pasternack said, noting that the composer, though not one of the more famous, was Benjamin Britten’s revered teacher.
The Scarlatti piece typically features two flutists, but for these concerts Pasternack highlights the orchestra’s oboists: Sequim’s Nancy Reis and Port Townsend’s Anne Krabill. Violinist Pamela Liu of Bellevue is guest concertmaster for the two performances.
“I’m really looking forward to this collaboration,” said Center, adding that the Haydn concerto has an “open sound,” giving the cello plenty of space to shine.
Surprisingly, he’s only played this concerto with piano accompaniment. Though Center has performed the notoriously difficult D major concerto by Haydn with orchestras, this week’s concerts will be his first time playing the C major work with a full chamber ensemble surrounding him.
Center will continue playing with the Port Angeles Symphony throughout this season as well as with the Lake Union orchestra.
Music frees him from a highly stressful day job — and the commute from Seattle to the North Olympic Peninsula is no deterrent.
The cello, he said, “floats my boat,” as does working with Pasternack.
“One of Jonathan’s strengths is he does a great job programming; balancing out one piece with another,” Center said.
“And the camaraderie between the orchestra and the conductor is really strong. That enthusiasm is infectious.”
Wherever he is performing, after all, Center is home.
“Music has given my life purpose and meaning,” he said.
“It is the way I best express myself.”