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Sunday, July 8, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cello lover's aid to young players is instrumental

Seattle Times music critic

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Dr. Ray Carlsen, a dermatologist, was 50 before he finally picked up the cello, fulfilling a long-held dream of learning to play.

He loves the sound of the cello, and he loves the instruments - all 40 of them, made in the 18th through 20th centuries - which he now owns and lends out for free to gifted youngsters who need a fine instrument they can take to the next level.

"I knew that when I started at 50, I wouldn't attract many listeners!" says Carlsen, a soft-spoken man of unfailing courtesy who handles these instruments with the delicacy of a surgeon.

"But I gained a feeling for what talent can do. And I saw a need for fine instruments among young players who were getting an earlier start on the cello than I could."

Carlsen's Bellevue-based Carlsen Cello Foundation has evolved in the past six months to fill the need for the instrument he loves the best. Professional-quality instruments pose an eternal roadblock for gifted young musicians. They aspire to the stars, they practice like demons - and their forward progress is halted by the beginner's instrument that doesn't let them achieve the musical effects they need.

For young string players, the problem is usually the worst, because high-quality string instruments - ones on which players can achieve more subtle technical effects and beautiful tone - can run $10,000 to $25,000 and up. Way, way up, especially if you are talking about high-end, 17th- and 18th-century instruments from such Italian masters as Stradivari and Guarneri, which now sell in the multiple millions (when they sell at all).

No one would suggest every talented teenager needs the equivalent of a Stradivarius, but the high price tag of even moderately good instruments can halt the progress of a budding virtuoso.

A few years ago, Carlsen's cello teacher, Richard Aaron (now of Cleveland), got him started collecting instruments and gave him some expert advice on picking out the finest ones. Carlsen says Aaron has "the uncanny ability to hear the potential of a cello."

Now, Carlsen goes regularly to the rare-instrument auctions in London, always with an adviser to help check out the cellos, and he purchases instruments that meet his criteria. Usually he can buy the cellos, which were made in the 18th through 20th centuries and require restoration, for $5,000 to $10,000; when restored, they will fetch around $10,000 to $25,000 on the open market.

"They have to be structurally strong, and they have to measure correctly - there's a great deal of variation in the size of the instruments," says Carlsen. "And I just can't buy an instrument that doesn't look good."

The instruments are either carried home (gate-checked on the airlines, where they are hand-loaded into cargo), or packaged in special cases and mailed. Then the restoration process begins, at the Rafael Carrabba workshop in Seattle, where Carlsen spends two or three mornings a week, learning and helping.

His collection now includes cellos by continental and English makers, including Ravatin, Aschauer, Farotto, Gadda, Gallinotti, Poggi, Forster, Lockey Hill, Fendt and several others.

What difference does a fine cello make? Miriam Shames, assistant principal in the Tacoma Symphony, plays one of Carlsen's instruments (a George Panormo, made in 1820) and volunteers her time for the foundation. She says the Panormo has "changed my life. It solves things I struggled with for years, like getting a clean sound in fast, technical passages, or getting more sound without squawking - as well as more tonal colors. It also `speaks' more easily, almost without effort."

After informally lending a few cellos to deserving students, Carlsen decided late last year to establish the foundation, receiving IRS certification.

The recipients of the instruments, which are on loan annually with an indefinite end term (usually the end of college/conservatory years), are recommended by teachers who recognize their need and talent. Students are responsible for insurance.

Dane Johansen, a 15-year-old cellist from Fairbanks, plays one of Carlsen's cellos. He'll be heard in the Emerging Artist Concert of the Seattle Chamber Music Society's Summer Festival. Johansen, who has been traveling twice a month to Seattle for intensive lessons with Toby Saks, is enrolled this summer at the Young Artists Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

"It's pretty mind-boggling," says his mother, Gail Johansen, "to think about finding an instrument they will love and funding that instrument. You also spend a lot on their training. You can put a fortune into these instruments.

"Dane has really been enjoying this cello and having the chance to get so many more tone colors. It has really expanded his playing. I'm a violinist, so I know how important it is to have a quality instrument."

Joshua Boyce, a 13-year-old local student, says he gets "a lot better tone, a much better sound" since he started playing one of the Carlsen cellos.

He was recommended by his teacher, Barbara Balatero, who also teaches Carlsen's 11-year-old daughter, Audrey.

The future is wide open for this foundation, Carlsen believes, especially if potential donors who value music and education will come forward with more funding for more and better instruments. Anyone with a fine cello languishing unplayed in a closet is also "very welcome."

"The students are so grateful," says Carlsen, "when they are able to work with a good instrument. One mother wrote to me saying, 'Otherwise he would not be playing.' And these beautiful instruments are meant to be played, to have the vibrations of music going through them. Putting together the right player and the right instrument is a great satisfaction."

To reach Carlsen, e-mail rcarlsen@carlsencellofoundation.org, or call his Bellevue office at 425-455-9945.

Melinda Bargreen may be reached at mbargreen@seattletimes.com.

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