Artist Spotlight: Maria Sensi Sellner of Resonance Works

The vibrant programming of Resonance Works | Pittsburgh is conceived by a woman on the move, Maria Sensi Sellner. Characteristic of her rise as a leading American conductor, she was one of six international conductors chosen for the autumn 2018 Dallas Opera Hart Institute for Women Conductors. One of only two Americans in the cohort, she made her debut with the Dallas Opera Orchestra in concert during this groundbreaking program that illuminates the need to advance women in the conducting podium and opera administrative positions.

In Pittsburgh, Sellner wears multiple hats as artistic and general director of Resonance Works | Pittsburgh, which she founded in 2013. Since the group’s first performance of a concert version of Verdi’s Macbeth with both singers and orchestra on the bare stage of the Charity Randall Theatre, Resonance has succeeded in drawing a loyal audience at various intimate venues suited for diverse classical and sometimes popular repertoire. Most recently, A Joyous Sound paid tribute to her mentor Robert Page with a pastiche of holiday and new music in city and suburban churches.

Sellner says, “From the beginning, our goal was to reimagine the performance experience for both artists and audiences–to present repertoire that artists were particularly passionate about, and to do so in spaces that would bring the audience closer to the performers and heighten the musical experience…We wanted to demonstrate to Pittsburgh the breadth and scope of Resonance Works–to distinguish ourselves through high-level performances, a holistic and unique approach to programming, and a growing community of professional artists from Pittsburgh and beyond.”

Sellner says, “We have found that [audiences] trust us to deliver meaningful performances whether it’s a fully staged opera, chamber music, or anything in between. In performing in a variety of venues and neighborhoods, we have seen two benefits–introducing people to new places and spaces in Pittsburgh, and also reaching new audiences in their own communities.”

Sellner is preparing the company’s first major oratorio, Bach’s St. John’s Passion for performances on Fri., March 22 (its first program in Heinz Chapel) and Sun., March 24 (at Westminster Presbyterian Church in the South Hills).

Our artist excitement is off the charts for the Bach Passion,” Sellner says. “We actually have a few more singers in our chorus than I had planned on because the interest level was so high for this project”–and a work with which she has her longest relationship over the past decade. Tenor Joseph Gaines, who Sellner met on her first stint with the chorale masterwork,  is back in Pittsburgh to sing the Evangelist, one of seven aria soloists who will “sing as the core of our chamber choir…to add to the power and immediacy of the performance.”

“It is very true what Brahms said: ‘Study Bach. There you will find everything.’ And though this is our first oratorio, it is also really this season’s opera, and will take people on quite an emotional journey,” says the conductor.  

Sellner shared a glimpse of what’s next–including a season finale, American Serenade in which she collaborates and shares the podium with Daniel Curtis in May–while reflecting on the formula that’s made the work of her six-year-old organization so very resonant for regional music lovers.


PITR:  Fewer conductors happen to be women. What are the greatest challenges you’ve encountered?


Sellner: I was very lucky growing up that I never really thought that I couldn’t do something–or wouldn’t be allowed to do something–because I was a girl. As a result, it was disappointing to realize as an adult in the 21st century that the opportunities for so many people continue to be constrained by the attitudes and prejudices of others. This is perhaps more true in the arts than in other businesses. Today there are an increasing number of women composers, conductors, and arts administrators, but few at the top levels.

Marin Alsop is still the only woman music director of a major American orchestra, and until last year there were no women music directors of any major American opera companies. It’s naive to think that this situation doesn’t create significant challenges for women in this field.


PITR: What is most gratifying about your role at the podium?

Sellner:  It is motivating that people are starting to pay more attention–to realize that the music organizations that are thriving today are presenting a broader and more diverse range of programming and artists, and increasing representation for women and artists of color. It takes some effort to change this paradigm, but really not all that much. And people are starting to call out the organizations whose seasons look the same today as they did 10 or 20 years ago.  

I love Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, but find new life in their works when they are alongside meaningful pieces from our own time and place. There is a vitality and common humanity to be found in this mix.

As a conductor, I make no sound. I am reliant on the talent and expression of the musicians around me, and what they bring to our music making in every moment. Unlike visual art, music has the temporal dimension, which cannot be captured in its complete essence, even in recordings. This is the bittersweet magic of being a musician and experiencing a live musical performance–literally feeling the fleeting vibrations in the room. There truly is nothing like it.  

My job is to bring together and guide the collective work of my colleagues to create vibrations that become meaningful experiences–journeys through time and place, that tell stories, that elicit emotional, visceral, and intellectual responses. I can think of no more gratifying thing to do.



PITR: Resonance Works | Pittsburgh has two more events this season. How do you characterize each and

This season we have had a number of firsts, as we have been “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Both of these programs are infused with Resonance Works’ DNA, in that they were created with the goal of inspiring our audiences by empowering our artists.  

We are currently preparing our first oratorio – Bach’s dramatic St. John Passion. This is actually the work that I have had the longest relationship with as a conductor.

In May we present our first world premiere in American Serenade, which is our sixth season finale and also our 25th mainstage program. We’re featuring as soloists three amazing instrumentalists from our Resonance Chamber Orchestra–concertmaster Sandro Leal-Santiesteban, clarinetist Ryan Leonard, and flutist Lindsey Goodman. Nancy Galbraith has composed a new flute concerto for Lindsey that we are all very excited about.

The oldest works on this program are less than 75 years old–Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and Bernstein’s Serenade. This was very much intentional, as we wanted to celebrate the “American sound” that defined their work, and trace that through to music being written today.


PITR:  What do you find audiences in Pittsburgh crave?

I think audiences crave meaningful experiences. With the increased isolation of our digital world, the live performance experience is more and more valuable…One of the greatest signs of success for us is getting audience feedback that people came to a performance where they were not at all familiar with the music, but left loving it. Last year’s little match girl passion was perhaps the greatest example of this.

One of my goals is to continue to create performances that are relevant and to strengthen our connection with the people and issues in our community. I’m a great believer in the power of art to affect people. As Leonard Bernstein said  “…people are changed by art – enriched, ennobled, encouraged…” And so we as artists have great power and great responsibility, which we are taking very seriously. We have some exciting things planned along these lines, some of which you’ll hear about when we announce our 2019-20 season later this spring.

Visit Resonance Works | Pittsburgh for more details and tickets at the company’s website.  

Concert Photography Credit: Alisa Innocenti


Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh  LinkedIn

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