ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
In the world's concert ritual, the musicans take their place
on stage, the orchestra warms up and pretunes, the house lights dim, and
the hushed and expectant audience awaits the entrance of the maestro. Before
his appearance, however, another player in the drama makes his way onstage.
He is the concertmaster whose role in an orchestra is so central that his
presence is separately acknowledged. Among the world's great concertmasters,
the name of Norman Carol looms large indeed. He has occupied the principal
violinist's chair in the Philadelphia Orchestra for 20 years.
It was Eugene Ormandy by far the longest-reigning music
director of any American orchestra, leading the Philadelphians for an astonishing
44 years who hand-picked Norman Carol to come back to the city of his birth
and musical training. Carol, born in 1928, had studied with Efrem Zimbalist
at The Curtis Institute of Music, that elite and unique school which to this
day is privately operated, accommodates only about 180 students in all music
disciplines together, and grants full scholarships to every student. As was
(and is) the case, instrumentalists were encouraged to think of themselves
as budding soloists, and their command of the concerto repertory was formidable.
Less formidable was (and is) their knowledge of the bread-and-butter orchestral
repertory and, Carol recalls, there wasn't even an orchestra at Curtis during
the war years. Accordingly, when he was chosen to attend Tanglewood during
the summers of 1946 and 1947, there was a lot of boning up to be done. And
there was no one who could officiate over Carol's apprenticeship as effectively
as the legendary Serge Koussevitzky.
When Koussevitzky invited the 19-year-old Carol to join
the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carol turned him down, still following the
blueprint of well-intentioned parents and wishful-thinking teachers which
demanded that he funnel his energies into a solo career. But when Koussevitzky
called him a second time with an offer to put him in the first violin section,
discretion became the better part of valor. "It was one of the few times
in my life that I went against my parents' opinion, but it may have been
the most important decision I ever made. I stayed with the B.S.O. for three
years and learned a vast amount of repertoire which I had never known before.
The first time I ever played the Bruckner Fifth was the first time
I ever heard the Bruckner Fifth. My stand partner was an old Bostonian
who muttered: 'Bruckner reminds me of a rainy day in the cemetery.' But we
played everything. And during the summer, Koussevitzky chose me to
participate in the special Bach/Mozart concerts with only a small string
complement. I also learned a lot about musical transitions: my three years
were Koussevitzky's last two, and Munch's first, with the B.S.O."
The ambivalences of the Boston years are still vivid in his
recollection. He admired the orchestra but already then loved the
Philadelphia. He had enormous respect for Koussevitzky's knowledge and for
his unflagging commitment to contemporary music in general and the American
composer in particular. But he was also keenly aware of the fear which was
rampant in the non-union orchestra, particularly among the older players who
could (and did) find themselves summarily dismissed by a martinet personality.
And he recalls Koussevitzky's "on-the-job score learning" which
was still possible with virtually unlimited rehearsal time, especially with
the assistance of B.S.O. pianist Lukas Foss and concertmaster Richard Burgin.
"I often think back now on how much I learned from Burgin. I could kick
myself for never having had the courage to study with him privately. He did
Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg before they were popular in this country, and
he was a truly unbelievable musician."
During his third year in Boston, Carol gave a solo recital
in New York's Town Hall, an absolute "must" in the pursuit of musical
credentials in those days. The reviews were sensational and included even
an article in Time Magazine, leading to a contract with a major artist
management and plans for a national tour. Instead of following the glory
path, however, he hit an unexpected trail. Drafted into the U.S. Army, he
was stationed in San Francisco's Presidio and assigned to special services
where he grew friendly with a young pianist/composer by the name of André
Previn with whom he did a lot of concertizing. "Every month my name
would appear on overseas orders it was the middle of the Korean war and every
month I was rescued by the intervention of a general's wife who enjoyed my
playing at the officer's club. It all turned out rather lucky because I met
my future wife there." Elinor Carol is a native San Franciscan who exudes
life and charm and fun, a down-to-earth, no-nonsense type who loves a good
laugh and won't put up with pretense or pompousness. She is obviously proud
of her husband and has played a very major role in his life. The Carols have
two married children, a daughter and son, and the family is unusually close-knit
and mutually supportive.
Carol, in fact, attributes much of his career to his family.
"I see so many artists who never see their children and who have all
sorts of problems. I happen to enjoy my children, and I thought it important
to be around." His opportunity to be around came when he accepted his
first concertmastership in New Orleans, where he remained for three seasons
(under Alexander Hilsberg) before moving onwards and upwards to the Minneapolis
Symphony (now Minnesota Orchestra). Engaged by Antal Dorati (who left the
orchestra before Carol's tenure began), he found himself concertmaster of
an orchestra with a brand new, and then virtually unknown, music director,
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. The two musicians have been close friends and colleagues
ever since, and Carol's commissioning and premiering of Skrowaczewski's Violin
Concerto has marked a highpoint for both men.
The Minneapolis tenure lasted six years and ended in 1966
when Carol joined the Philadelphia Orchestra, the only concertmaster hired
by Eugene Ormandy with prior experience in the first chair. "I came
in here with a great deal of experience sitting in that hot seat. I say hot
seat because the concertmaster must be prepared to make a great many split-second
decisions. Of course, he must set the standard of bowings for the whole string
section, in consultation with the other principals. He is responsible for
playing all the incidental solos in the repertoire. He has to be a mind reader
and know what a conductor wants sometimes before the conductor realizes it.
And at times he is also called upon as a 'father confessor' or a go-between."
But Carol is also quick to point out that the contemporary concertmaster
is not subjected to the political tightrope-walking his predecessor might
have had to do decades ago. "The orchestral setup has changed drastically
over the years. Management has come to understand that the more they share
with the members of the orchestra, the easier everyone's existence is. We
have several committees and sub-committees devoted to all aspects of our
activities. For example, our artistic policy committee, which is comprised
of five members four elected players and the concertmaster discusses musical
and artistic problems with the conductor. In fact, Mr. Muti insisted on having
this committee when he came because he finds the musicians' feedback so valuable."
Carol's job in Philadelphia provides him with maximal flexibility
and the type of variety which assures a high level of stimulation. He plays
at least one solo work with the Philadelphia Orchestra each season and has
introduced to that city such works as the Serenade by Leonard Bernstein and
the concertos of Carl Nielsen, Paul Hindemith, Julius Conus, and most recently
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. He appears as soloist with other orchestras, continues
to play the occasional recital, teaches privately, coaches the strings of
The Curtis Institute, and tries to find time for chamber music.
When Norman Carol speaks of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one
hears the voice, not of a "company man," but of an enthusiast,
a turned-on fan with a great sense of history. He is glad to acknowledge the
stature which Leopold Stokowski established for the ensemble but goes on
to say that "the orchestra achieved unbelievable heights under Ormandy.
The list of 'firsts' during his tenure, be it in terms of travel or of technology,
is staggering. Under Muti the Orchestra is playing even better, but it is
a totally different sound, just as the personalities and the times are totally
Returning to the Ormandy era, Carol cites three attributes
which comprised what came to be known as "the Ormandy sound." "Not
only did he have a certain string sound in his ear but, more important, he
knew how to get it. Second, the quality of players he engaged was simply
superior. And finally, there was the quality of instruments that we had.
Ormandy was a nut about everyone's having first-class instruments. He was
the one who managed to get interest-free loans for the acquisition of musical
I would never have been able to swing the instrument that
I have" Carol plays a Guarnerius (del Gesu) dating from 1743 which had
belonged to Albert Spalding "if it had not been for this fringe benefit.
"As to Muti, his idea of sound obviously is totally
different it's a more classical kind of a sound, but then he can always call
upon the lusher sound when he feels he needs it. I've been associated with
him since 1972. Ormandy had met him in 1970 when Muti was still almost a
child, as conductors go, and he first conducted us two years later. He's
returned every single year since then, first as guest, then principal guest,
and now music director. He has qualities that are truly unusual, as if he
were touched by God. How else could he know the things he knows about art,
about books, about music? And he's completely honest as a musician and as
a man. That's how he gets the orchestra to play so convincingly. These are
the qualities that only the great conductors have."
Had he ever played under Leonard Bernstein? "Yes,"
he beamed, chuckling at the recollection of their first encounter. "I
was concertmaster at Tanglewood the year we did Peter Grimes (1946)
with Bernstein conducting. We had been preparing it all summer we were just
students and Britten arrived a few days before the performance and told us
that all our tempos were too fast. We had to make a lot of adjustments!"
Carol, the raconteur, talks with the ease of one who has
witnessed a veritable parade of conductors traipse by over the four decades
of his professional life. The stories keep coming, but the anecdotes he seems
to enjoy most are those with a historical basis. "Take Tennstedt. He
has a direct line to Strauss, his father having played under him. A few years
ago, Tennstedt came here and we did Zarathustra. Now I've played those
solos about 7,000 times, but he wanted me to use some fingerings that I
wouldn't have thought of in a million years. He loves to say that he has
'crazy musical ideas' or that 'you must be crazy in the way you play this
passage.' I told him it couldn't be done, and he said, 'Try it, try it.'
Well, it's the only way I play it now. It's another example of how great
conductors communicate their convictions."
In counseling the up-and-coming young instrumentalists he
sees, Carol never fails to encourage them to learn as much as they can, not
only of the instrument but of the repertoire, not only of the concerto literature,
but of chamber music and the orchestral repertory. "Unfortunately, too
many of today's teachers have denigrated the role of the orchestral musician.
I would like to see more of these teachers working with their students on
orchestral music. I always suggest that young people learn the incidental
solos or some of the trickier passages in the literature, and I remind them
that this might one day make the difference between having a job and looking
When asked if there were on occasion conductors to whom
the Orchestra wouldn't respond and for whom they wouldn't play, Carol's response
was immediate and unflinching. "I have heard about that sort of thing,
but I can tell you that it doesn't happen here. This is one of the great
qualities of the Philadelphia Orchestra. We have a certain level that we
just won't go below. There are many nights when we'll exceed it, but our
inner musical discipline is always there, no matter who is on the podium.
As a group and to a man, we have a sense of pride and we know that we have
a responsibility to an audience."
To hear Norman Carol speak about music is to witness an entirely
spontaneous and genuine outpouring of professionalism, of humility, and of
love. "I guess the wonderful thing about music is the learning process.
It doesn't matter how long you've been playing it, over and over again, it's
always different, always unusual, always new, always magic."