Engineering Her Own Path: Beyond the Bio with Maria Sensi Sellner

Conductors store many musical moments in mental cubbyholes not occupied by the next concert or the next season, little epiphanies to draw on as fuel or inspiration. For Maria Sensi Sellner, that eureka moment lasted months, maybe years. She had started a job in engineering, while also conducting a college orchestra and singing in the Mendelssohn Choir, on stage making music with the world famous conductors leading the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

“I had to step back and realize which parts of my life were the most fulfilling – and it was really those musical outlets,”  said Sellner, who would later garner rave reviews for her ability to electrify audiences and musicians alike.

“I had never considered conducting at all,” she said. “I thought maybe I would have a good engineering job and perhaps conduct a church choir on the side.”

Today she plans innovative programs for Resonance Works Pittsburgh, which produces opera; orchestral, choral, and chamber music; and musical theater, sometimes in the same show. Sellner founded the company in 2013, now seen as a singular and irreplaceable player in one of the country’s hottest metropolitan arts scenes.

If that career arc seems unusual, consider how much rarer it is to find a woman who has attained expertise in both engineering and conducting, disciplines that have traditionally if for no other reason been dominated by men.

Another distinguishing feature remains the diversity of genres and variety of performance spaces, which often means the orchestra is part of the scenery in staged opera.  Creating a multi-faceted concert program can be more time-consuming and more personal than selecting an evening-length opera, Sellner said, but also provides a certain thrill because it allows the artistic director to map out a meta-storyline of her own.

At the same time, opera remains a kind of all-encompassing form, with a cast of singers, orchestra, chorus, and theater artists.

“We started with opera, and I look at all of our programming through an operatic lens,” she said. The company’s diverse programming made it tricky to describe for awhile because the institutions of classical music are so ingrained.

Verdi’s Rigoletto comes up May 15 and 17. Around the corner are The National Anthems (Nov. 2-3), by Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang, and Amahl and the Night Visitors (Dec. 20 and 22).

Maria Sensi grew up in Arnold, Penn., a tiny town along the Allegheny River. She was good at science and math but also loved music, starting piano lessons from age 5. She shares a love of Verdi with her father, who took her regularly to the symphony as a child. Her parents noticed her writing music on her own, which led to lessons with composer Nancy Galbraith throughout high school. Now the chair of composition at Carnegie Mellon, Galbraith encouraged her to attend the university, where she could pursue a double major in music and engineering.

She completed her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering ahead of schedule, continuing on into the masters program while writing the orchestral piece to complete her music degree, and in 2003 married Brennan Sellner, who was on his way to a Ph.D. in robotics.

After graduation she worked in automotive glass research and development at PPG Industries, where one of her projects was to minimize defects in the strip of paint that goes around the edges of windshields “which most people don’t know is there,” she said.

The smallest pinhole in the paint is reason enough to reject the windshield altogether. “I liked the problem solving involved in engineering,” Sellner said. “…I liked it to a point.”

She drove from her home in the university area to work along Route 28, which was frequently under construction, listening to classical station WQED-FM or playlists of music she was rehearsing. All around her, she recalled, “I saw road rage every day.”

“I was just miserable. The things I was really living for were not what I was spending all my time doing. It was a really stark contrast. I could see my future stretched out before me and it was not really what I had anticipated.”

The kicker, she said, was when Brennan told her, “I’ve never seen you as excited or passionate about engineering as you are about music.”

Sellner left that job after a little more than a year. She returned to Carnegie Mellon, this time to earn a master’s in music composition, and connected with an esteemed mentor, renowned conductor Robert Page. Finally finding her niche, she continued study in his master’s program in conducting, where she conducted her first three operas.

Every year, Page gave a speech to the freshman music majors: ‘if you can be happy doing anything else, go and do that.’  It took me years of trying to do something else to discover that I really could only be happy in music.”  She conducted for numerous orchestras and opera companies, including orchestra, pops and chorus concerts for the Akron Symphony Orchestra.

In conceiving Resonance Works, she wanted to focus on artists, not the genres.

“I wanted to imagine classical music performances that would go beyond the typical silos of genre and ensemble,” she said.

Sellner knew she was also bucking tradition just by being a woman conductor. After all, it wasn’t until 2007 that Marin Alsop was appointed music director of the Baltimore Symphony, the first woman in 165 years of major American metropolitan orchestras to hold that position. She shares a fear Alsop has expressed, that somehow by virtue of breaking a glass ceiling, society will somehow see that box as checked and move on, as if token representation balances the playing field.

“I feel really lucky personally that I haven’t experienced some of the difficult and painful and truly horrible situations that a number of my colleagues have,” she said. “I’m very sensitive to the fact that we’ve got a long way to go.”

Sellner works out of the home she shares with her husband and Lucy, a 2-year-old Havanese. Sometimes she escapes work with knitting or binge reading. The “left brain” part of her mind still gets plenty of exercise through score study, examining “the construction of a piece of music, whether a short choral piece or the Verdi Requiem, analyzing its architecture, its inner workings,” she said. “That really tickles those parts of my brain.”

-Andrew Meacham