ST. PETERSBURG — Clay Ellerbroek came to the flute late, not starting to take lessons on the instrument until he was 13. Before, he was a saxophone player, and therein lies a telling story that the flutist related one afternoon at a coffee shop:
"Being a 12-year-old boy walking to school with a tenor saxophone case, with it constantly banging against the side of my leg, uphill, in the snow, both to and from school — well, after a year or two of that, I was ready to go to something smaller and more portable."
Such was the serendipitous influence of an ungainly sax case that led Ellerbroek to find his musical calling and become, years later, principal flute with the Florida Orchestra. Perhaps not surprisingly, he has been a free spirit since his childhood near Grand Rapids, Mich.
"I try not to fit the mold," he said. "I'm kind of the odd one in the family. I'm the only one that went into music. My brother went into finance. My parents owned a roller skating rink when I was growing up. I used to be (a good roller skater), then music took hold and I stopped."
In the orchestra's second-to-last masterworks program of the season this weekend, Ellerbroek is the soloist in Lowell Liebermann's Flute Concerto, a tuneful work commissioned by his hero, James Galway.
"I always go back to Galway," said Ellerbroek, who met the Irish flute virtuoso as a high school senior. "He's got a tone that's so recognizable. Phenomenal technique. Everything sounds so darned perfect all the time."
Ellerbroek, 42, named the orchestra's principal in 2009, plays a silver Powell flute that he's had since 1991. He has been practicing the concerto for a year.
"I spend a lot of time getting things just right," he said. "I've been spending more time with scales and tone production and finger work than anything. All the basic stuff that I never enjoyed doing when I was younger. When you get older you start to realize what's truly important when it comes to playing an instrument."
Even for principals, who regularly have solos, being featured in a concerto can be a challenge. "Even though this is not new to me, it's still a little unnerving," Ellerbroek said. "Being used to sitting in the orchestra, it's a huge change when you're out in front. There is a lot of mental preparation, always telling myself that everything is going to be okay, that it's like any audition or recital."
Through the years, the wind sections have been a strength of the Florida Orchestra. "I've played in other orchestras where you kind of have to adjust your intonation depending on who you are playing with," Ellerbroek said. "This orchestra has such a solid tonal center, especially in the winds, that it's easy to blend with one another."
As a symphonic flutist, Ellerbroek naturally spends much of his time playing masterpieces from the past, but his musical interests are wide ranging. "Classical music is what I do. I understand it," he said. "Does it define me as a musician? I don't think so. I like a lot of contemporary music."
Next season, he and principal harp Anna Kate Mackle will be the duo-soloists in a modern piece, Toward the Sea II by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.