Chris Stenstrom

Hometown: Clinton, NY
Member of the Nashville Symphony since 1999

What inspired you to become a musician – and what drew you to the cello?
I started on piano when I was really little. When I was about 10, I decided I wanted to play a string instrument, and the reason I picked cello was because we knew the cello teacher.

I never intended to be a professional musician. I went to Oberlin, and I started a double-degree program in biochemistry and music. I wanted to be a molecular biologist. I had some opportunities to do some research and work in the lab, and I really loved that, but I decided that if I didn’t try music, I’d regret not taking that chance.

What’s it like to be a member of the cello section?
The cello section is a balance between the other sections. Composers save the cellos for a special sound, or an important moment, and then they’ll give us the melody, often with the horns or another instrument. So we get to play really beautiful moments in the piece, but don’t have to do it all the time. We also get to work with the basses a lot and move things along. It’s a nice middle ground.

If you were given the chance to program an orchestra concert, which works would you select?
For me, it would be less about one piece that I really wanted to play. I would love to put together a program around an idea. I think it’s important that music doesn’t always tell a story or paint a literal picture. I would love to see a program that didn’t have the overture/concerto/symphony format, but instead was based around an idea that would get people to rethink why they listen to music and why it moves them.

Does your work as a musician influence other aspects of your life?
The longer I work for the symphony, the more aware I’ve become of everything that we do in the community. I’ve become more aware of the role of nonprofits in the community and how much work there is to do out there, and how excited people are to help.

What’s been the highlight of your time performing with the Nashville Symphony?
The year after I got here, we did our first Carnegie Hall tour. One of our stops on the way was Troy Savings Bank in Troy, New York, which is about an hour-and-a-half from where I grew up. I’d always heard about it. It was built so that the employees could have music. The acoustics were incredible, my parents were in the audience, I had just started my job, we were on our way to play Carnegie Hall, and we were playing Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier suite. What made it even more memorable was that we were crammed onstage, and the fire marshal actually walked on to make the fire safety announcement.

Do you have a favorite Nashville Symphony recording you’ve performed on?
It was really fun to perform Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, because it was such a small group. With a full orchestra, it’s hard to feel like you have a lot of interaction with the soloist, and with that recording, it was a small enough group that it felt more like chamber music.

Do you perform outside of your work with the Nashville Symphony?
I play a lot of early music on Baroque cello and viola da gamba, which is an area of the repertoire we don’t always get to play with the Symphony. Playing that music on the original instruments, how they sounded back when the music was written, is a really exciting way for me to take a fresh approach to music I’ve been playing all my life. It also gives me the opportunity to travel around with different groups; I play in Atlanta and Louisville, and I work with other early music enthusiasts from all over the country.

Do you enjoy reading?
I love to read ­— both of my parents were librarians. I tend to read nonfiction; I’ve been reading about the Rio Grande and the history of the river from colonial to modern times. What really draws me to this subject is that we spent time in Santa Fe this past summer, and it’s a way to tie the land to the people and the culture.

Do you enjoy listening to music in your free time?
Mostly, I opt for silence. But I will listen to music — typically things I don’t play. I love solo piano music — Haydn, Mozart, Schubert. I also listen to jazz occasionally, because I have no idea what they’re doing. I don’t understand it at all, and that’s kind of a relief.

Do you have a favorite piece of music?
I gravitate to extremes. I’ve always been interested in Shostakovich and Russian music that has this very serious strain to it. His string quartets are amazing, as are the Bartók string quartets; they’re the great string quartet cycles written after Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn. I also love Bach and even earlier music for the simplicity. The Bach cantatas are the thing I’ve discovered more recently because they don’t get performed nearly as often as they should. They’re endlessly creative and an amazing intersection of his intellectual approach and the emotion and religious seriousness he put into his music.

What was the first concert you ever attended?
My mother was the music librarian at Hamilton College, so as long as I can remember, I’ve been going to concerts. When I was young, I heard André Watts play, and I got to hear Rostroprovich, because he would summer in upstate New York. I also remember, a little bit later, watching Yo-Yo Ma play in a gymnasium. A bird had gotten into the gym, and it was flying around in circles overhead. When Yo-Yo Ma plays, he leans back and closes his eyes, so we were all wondering: Is he watching the bird, or is he just really into the music?

What’s the first record you ever owned?
I have a very intense physical memory of being around LPs. I remember the Musical Heritage Society series, and in particular I remember the white album covers with the black lines.

What are your favorite Nashville restaurants?
I love Patterson House. I love to make cocktails, and to go to there and watch them work is always inspiring and slightly intimidating. I also like Pinewood Social because you can go there any time of the day. I’m a vegetarian, so I love Woodlands, and I like Rosepepper because it’s three blocks from our house.

If you weren’t a professional musician, what career do you think you’d have?
If I hadn’t done music, I would have done research. I love working in the lab, the physical aspect of experiments, as well as the thinking about what you’re doing. When I was in school, I had a real interest in viruses, how they work, how they’re put together, and how they interact with the human body. It has been unbelievable to see where the sciences are now, compared to when I was trying to rearrange DNA in college.