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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Norman Carol

Norman Carol

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 different."

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 instruments.

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 for one."

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."

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