100 Dallas Creatives: No. 62 Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson

What do you think, ladies? Beard or no beard?
What do you think, ladies? Beard or no beard?

Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. Know an artistic mind who deserves a little bit of blog love? Email lauren.smart@dallasobserver.com with the whos and whys.

When I meet him for coffee, Nathan Olson is sporting a new look -- a thick dark beard he grew "mostly out of laziness" over the summer. He's actively soliciting advice on whether or not to keep it or go back to the boyish, clean-shaven look he usually sports. So far he's gotten mixed reviews. I get the sense that, like most 20-somethings who are indecisive on matters of facial hair, he wouldn't mind if a pretty girl told him decisively which look suits him best so that he'd know whether or not to shave.

In this and other ways, Olson comes across as completely accessible and, well, a pretty normal 27-year old. He plays in a couple of indoor soccer leagues with friends and dabbles in tennis and racquetball to stay fit. He rented an apartment in uptown when he moved here three years ago, but just bought a townhouse off of lower Greenville and is excited to explore his new neighborhood. He loves sports, is strongly opinionated about LeBron James and the Miami Heat (he used to live in Cleveland) and, when it comes to dating, like most of us, he's still "figuring that out."

All of this makes it easy to forget that Olson is an exceptionally talented, successful classical violinist. He started college at 15, completing his undergraduate degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music at 19 and his graduate degree at 21 (also at CIM). At 24, Olson won the job of co-concertmaster at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

If you go to the Meyerson Symphony Center on any given night to hear the DSO, you'll be able to spot Olson seated front and left of center, dressed in a black suit, doing what he does best.

At the Dallas Symphony, you share the position of concertmaster with Alex Kerr. What's the difference between sitting first and second chair in the orchestra?

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When I'm sitting in the second chair, I feel like my responsibility is just to play my part well and follow Alex (Kerr). When I'm sitting concertmaster, I feel responsible for the whole thing. It's funny. It's just two feet over, but it really feels very different. In rehearsals and in concerts, when you're concertmaster, you always have to be two or three steps ahead and know exactly when the section is supposed to come in or when you need to listen to something somewhere else in the orchestra in order to be together. I'm in love with the situation here. I think its great. I play concertmaster sometimes, and then sometimes Alex is here and I follow. It really works out.

Were your parents musicians? How did you get started playing the violin? My parents are not musicians, although they are music lovers. We had a piano in the house growing up and we always had music on. My dad actually has a math degree and my mom is an engineer -- they met at U.C. Berkeley after my mom moved there from Iran in the 70's to go to school.

The story my parents tell is that when I was in preschool, one of my teachers played Bach for us during nap-time. Apparently I came home and told my mom I wanted to hear some Bach. So my mom was like, "Okay, let's listen to some Bach" and put on an album. But because it wasn't the exact same piece I'd heard at school, I told her "that's not Bach!" Anyway, I started piano when I was six and violin a year after, but eventually violin won out.

What was it about the violin? It just felt more like an extension of myself, I guess. That, and I went to a very small, unique middle school in Berkeley called The Crowden School. It was focused around chamber music. Being introduced to chamber music that early was awesome -- I started playing in a chamber group like a year after I started violin. Most kids just get private lessons or maybe orchestra if they're lucky.

Being in a chamber group taught me so much. It applies to every aspect of making music, but also to normal life because you have to work with people, you have to follow, you have to lead, you have to communicate, you have to listen, you can't hide, there aren't ten other people playing you're part, you've got to do your part.

So is that early experience with musical collaboration why you chose to be a concertmaster in an orchestra instead of traveling around as a superstar soloist? The life of a soloist - not that I ever even had that option, but even if I did - is very difficult. You're traveling all the time. It seems like it would be kind of lonely and a little bit unsettled. I know a lot of violinists who would say that's what they dreamed. I can't really say that I did.

Chamber music really is my true love. In a really great orchestra, which I think Dallas is on its way to becoming, we like to think of it as being a big chamber music group. Plus, the lifestyle of a concertmaster definitely allows me to have a sense of home here in Dallas (I'm here 30 weeks of the season), and to still play with my string quartet (the Baumer String Quartet) a few weeks out of the year. We're all spread out now, but I've known two of the guys in the quartet since middle school. We played together at Crowden.

All of that and, while I was at Cleveland, I worked with Bill Preucil, the Cleveland Orchestra's concertmaster. I studied with him at CIM's Concertmaster Academy, where I had the opportunity to learn all the big concertmaster solos and sit in on Cleveland Orchestra rehearsals. That experience plus my time as concertmaster at the Canton Symphony gave me so much experience for this job.

Still, was it intimidating to come to the DSO as concertmaster at such a young age? I think no matter what age you are, you're always going to learn stuff when you start. Of course I had some jitters, but I felt ready.

So much of your job as an orchestra musician is centered around following what the composer wrote in the score and what the conductor wants from the group. Do you feel like you get to be creative as a musician in that role? Definitely. I mean an easy way to test that would be to take the same conductor and have him conduct the same piece with five different orchestras. It's not going to sound the same. Each orchestra, especially the good orchestras, really have their own sound. And that isn't something that happens overnight. A lot of it has to do with how the section leaders communicate with their sections and how the different sections communicate with each other. I mean, yes, the conductor is in control of a lot of things, but the conductor can't be in control of everything. There's so much going on at any one time.

I think about this all the time. The thing a lot of people don't realize about being a musician is that if you're committed to your craft, you're kind of always thinking about it. My schedule is focused around when I'm practicing. It's something I'm just always thinking about.

So, what do you like to do in Dallas when you have the rare night off from practicing or performing? I'm a sports junkie. I love basketball and football. I'm really excited right now because I have tickets to see the Cowboys play the 49ers on Sunday. Of course, being from the Bay Area, that's a big deal for me.

And, you know, the one thing I do like about the heat here, is going somewhere late at night when it's still 90 degrees out and having a really cold drink. It tastes five times as good.

100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi


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