It was a label on a fiddle that sent Paul Severtson to a Norwegian cemetery, where he searched for the tombstone of a man who had unknowingly touched his life.
A few years before his trip to the Scandinavian country, Severtson had acquired a Hardanger fiddle, a folk instrument specific to certain parts of Norway. And he was so impressed with the fiddle that he decided to visit its origins.
Luckily, the label told him it was made in 1918 in the town of Brunkeberg.
“I went to the town,” said Severtson, of Santa Margarita, whose ancestors also came from Norway. “And I saw the grave of the maker and asked a random passer-by, ‘Can you tell me where his farm is?’ They took me there.”
While the fiddle maker, Endre Endresen Sandland, had passed away, his grandson still lived and worked on the farm. And while his children watched a Laurel and Hardy movie on television (with the sound turned down), Severtson played them the fiddle that had been made there decades earlier.
“That was really a great experience,” Severtson said.
While Festival Mozaic features musicians from around the world, Severtson is one of the many local musicians performing at this year’s classical music festival. A development director for public radio station KCBX by day, he’s been a part of the musical community for 20 years. Yet, his musical experience goes back much farther.
“We were preacher’s kids so we were expected to live good lives—on the up-and-up,” he said. “And my mom was a musician. My mom played organ and directed the (church) choir. So she was very influential in my musical life.”
Severtson, who took up violin at age 6, often performed in a string quartet with three of his four siblings as they grew up in the San Diego area. But when it came time for college, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.
“I was a philosophy major initially but very quickly fell in with a lot of musician friends,” he said.
A national merit scholarship had allowed him to go to Yale, where he eventually studied music. There he was the concertmaster at the Yale Symphony Orchestra. Out East, he also performed with a rock band, playing electric violin.
“I think we probably sounded most like The Band or The Grateful Dead,” he said.
After graduating from Yale in the early 1970s, he returned to San Diego, where he joined the San Diego Symphony. Sometime after returning to California, he found that fiddle at a place called the House of Norway in Balboa Park. After teaching himself to play the ornate fiddle, he went to Norway, where he performed with locals in small villages. There, he saw, the local fiddlers learned the Hargander’s rhythms and bowing via oral tradition.
“Listening to those old men play their fiddles,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, “I discovered a live tradition that continues to be handed down from one generation to another.”
After a couple of trips to Norway and a few seasons with the San Diego Symphony in the early ’70s, he joined a trio called Stone’s Throw, which played jazz from the ’20s and ’30s.
“It was really weird because it was in the middle of the disco time,” he said.
Performing in restaurant lounges, Stone’s Throw provided a living for nine years, Severtson said. But he soon realized that he would need another line of work.
“I started having kids, and that wasn’t jibing too well with working weekends until the wee hours,” he said. “And we had kind of done what we could locally, and then it was going to become a question of doing a lot of traveling — cruise ships or something like that.”
His career outside of music began as a data processor at a local hospital. Then he became a fundraiser for San Diego Hospice. In 1992, he moved to San Luis Obispo, where he got a job raising money for KCBX. His job there entails on-air fund drives, special events and mail solicitations.
“My experience in fundraising is if you articulate the need properly, your needs are met,” said the soft-spoken Severtson. “And we’ve always met our needs.”
Severtson’s day job culminates with major on-air fund drives twice a year — in March and September. While 12-hour days make it difficult to focus on music during fund drives, most of the year he remains active in the music community.
“When I moved here, I wasn’t really that aware of all the musical life here, but I quickly got into it,” he said.
Severtson became involved with the San Luis Obispo Symphony, where he is currently co-concertmaster with Pam Dassenko. He also taught at Cal Poly and became involved in the Mozart Festival— now Festival Mozaic. When musical director Clifton Swanson retired a few years ago, Severtson was part of the search committee to find a replacement— which wound up being Scott Yoo.
At this year’s festival, the multi-instrumentalist will play a Vivaldi concerto on mandolin — at Yoo’s request — the first time Severtson will have played mandolin at the festival. He’ll also play violin with the festival orchestra and he’ll play Mozart on viola with a piano quartet.
While Severtson is grateful to have a day job, music, he said, provides a balance in life.
“It’s the core of my being,” he said. “I would be nowhere without music.”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.