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Arnold native leaves engineering career to pursue passion to conduct

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Alisa Milnthorp
Conductor Maria Sensi Sellner
Tristan Milnthorp
Maria Sensi Sellner conducts the All University Orchestra at Carnegie Mellon in spring of 2012 at Carnegie Music Hall.
ALISA GARIN PHOTOGRAPHY
Conductor Maria Sensi Sellner
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Valley High School class of 1997 graduate Maria Sensi Sellner was the drum major for the band.
Alisa Innocenti
A scene from Maria Sensi Sellner's Resonance Works production of MacBeth
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Maria Sensi Sellner at the piano at home in Arnold when she was about 5 years old.
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Sean Taylor, Maria Sensi Sellner and Robert Page after the CMU Holiday Concert in 2008

When, several years ago, Maria Sensi Sellner realized that music really was “the thing I live for,” it was no insignificant decision.

The Arnold native and 1997 Valley High School graduate, she of a strongly analytical mind who excelled in math and science, had devoted so much time, energy and finances to earning not one, but two, degrees in engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Still, she knew the journey to finding one's bliss is not necessarily a linear one. “You have a feeling when you know you are doing the right thing in life,” the Squirrel Hill resident says.

Music, an important part of her life since she was a child, and her duel-degree pursuit at CMU, began to pull in a stronger direction. She stayed at CMU to earn two additional master's degrees in composition and conducting.

Today, the former Valley High drum major, winner of the 2012 and 2013 American Prize in opera conducting, finds herself on stages she might not have imagined when she was leading the Viking band across area football fields.

Praised for her versatility as a conductor of opera, orchestras and choruses, Sellner, 34, is founder and artistic director of the new Resonance Works (www.resonanceworks.org), a musical performing-arts company that staged its inaugural production, Verdi's “Macbeth,” in October at the University of Pittsburgh's Charity Randall Theatre in Oakland.

She is a full-time professor and interim director of choirs at CMU; director of the Akron Symphony Orchestra Chorus; assistant conductor and a member of the professional core of vocalists of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, chorus of choice for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; and was music director for almost a decade of the All University Orchestras of CMU.

While Sellner is aware engineering might be a more financially stable career choice, she has no regrets.

“None at all. There's such a good feeling when you know you are doing the thing that you are supposed to be doing,” she says.

It's a feeling that, sometimes, others, such as her husband, Brennan Sellner, who works in the robotics field, sense even before you do yourself, she says.

He has been vital in encouraging her to follow her dream to launch Resonance Works, and he wears a number of administrative hats with the new organization.

He admires her passion.

“Juggling three, four or, sometimes, five ongoing or upcoming projects or productions is a fine art, which Maria has mastered,” he says.

His wife finds energy in her work. “I like being busy. I do the job until it's done and sleep in the time that is left,” she says.

She will direct Carnegie Mellon University's holiday concerts at 8 p.m. Dec. 5 at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland, and at noon Dec. 6 in the foyer of the College of Fine Arts at CMU, both open to the public.

“I've been really lucky. I've had some fabulous opportunities,” she says.

She certainly has earned them, say those who know her.

“I have watched her blossom from a warm, intelligent, kind, friendly and loyal young student to one of the prominent leaders in the Pittsburgh music scene,” says Nancy Galbraith, composition professor at CMU, with whom Sellner has been studying since high school. Galbraith is confident Sellner will have continued success.

Sharing that view is Grammy Award-winner Robert Page, who also taught Sellner at CMU.

“The greatest reward any teacher can have is observing the success of his students. She is so special,” says Page, University professor emeritus at CMU and former professor of music and director of choral activities there.

He also is the music director emeritus of The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.

He lauds Sellner as a respected opera conductor and “a thorough musician who inspires her musicians, bringing vision, incredible energy and tenacity to all that she does.” Her impressive launching of Resonance Works is an example of her entrepreneurial capabilities, he adds.

It was founded in response to shrinking opportunities to see and perform live classical music, Sellner says, and her hope to spotlight talented, but underutilized, performers and venues. It's about bringing people and the artists together, she says, “often in a more intimate way in communities that do not have those kinds of opportunities.”

A sacred oratorio is planned for the spring, but dates or a venue have not been firmed.

“I want to make experiences available to people. You never know how a live performance will move you or touch you or make you think,” she says.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that the arts are “really critical in life and in our society,” she says. “It's really how we can express ourselves to each other and future generations. The arts are good and necessary work,” she says.

She goes about that work in an exemplary manner, says David Gram of Washington, D.C., who directed Resonance Works' “Macbeth.”

“It was so clear how much respect and support she has from her fellow artists, and, likewise, how supportive and nurturing she is with the ensemble of artists she surrounds herself with,” adds Gram, who is associate artistic director of Theatre Aspen.

She brings a love of music, history and performance to her profession, he says, “and an unwavering desire to see classical music flourish in Pittsburgh.”

Google the phrase “passionate tenacity,” and a picture of Maria should pop up as the first option, says Renee Anthony Dee of Akron, Ohio, president of the Resonance Works' board of directors and former director of artistic plan-ning for the Akron Symphony.

“She is a highly motivated young woman,” she says. “And has the rare ability to envision what is possible and to enroll those like-minded and equally talented individuals who can bring those possibilities to fruition.”

The fact that people of such a high caliber want to work with Sellner speaks volumes to her artistic attributes, Dee adds.

Soprano Amelia D'Arcy of Mt. Lebanon, a Mendelssohn Choir member who sang the role of Lady Macbeth for Resonance Works, reminds that Sellner is a woman making her way successfully in a traditionally male field.

“Garnering respect as a conductor is difficult for everyone, perhaps even more so for a petite and diminutive woman with a smile on her face,” D'Arcy says.

“In a difficult field rife with egos, politics and complex personalities, Maria's personal strengths are her honesty, humility and very real generosity of spirit,” D'Arcy says.

Throughout her life, Sellner says, people always raised the gender issue. “I never felt I couldn't do things because I was a girl,” she says.

Now this woman, whose dreams include conducting opera professionally, says, “I want to be doing my best work at the highest level I possibly can. There's a certain bliss when you activate what you're passionate about.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com

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