Norman Carol Bows Out

After three decades as the heart of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the concertmaster takes his final encore. Bravo!

IT WASN’T SUPPOSED to end so soon for the concertmaster. And it wasn’t supposed to end like this — his forced-farewell season marred by the last-minute cancellation of his final solo performance. Still, as Norman Carol rises from the first-violin chair of the Philadelphia Orchestra later this month, never to sit back down in it again, he will always have this: He went out like a Phillie, with the symphonic equivalent of a sports injury.

He ran into a wall of shoulder pain after reaching for too many fang high notes. He was put on the disabled list, had shoulder surgery and then tried to play through the pain for three seasons. Eventually, even the stoic "Silver Fox" couldn’t handle the hurt. So at, 66 he is stepping down after 28 years as the lead "fiddle player" of the orchestra and the musical heart of several incarnations of the "Philadelphia Sound." Come September, someone else will be striding purposefully onto the Academy stage, nodding to the oboist for an A and tuning the strings to his instrument. Someone else will decide which direction the violin bows will move on each note. Someone else will have what Carol considers the best steady job in classical music.

What will he do?

"I haven’t really figured that out yet," he says.

Does he want to conduct?

"No, I’d like to keep my friends."

What will happen to his 1743 Guarnerius del Gesu, a musical instrument that is at least as famous as its owner?

"Why?" he asks. "Are you looking to buy a violin?"

 

NORMAN CAROL HAS A FLAIR FOR THE UNDRAMATIC. HE IS SO unassuming — in a world where people are so full of, well, assumption — that offstage he seems determined to not only demystify life in the symphony, but to de-romanticize it as well. I met Carol in 1984 while doing a story on Riccardo Muti. I sat with him during a train trip to New York for a Carnegie Hall concert, and, another day, he took me backstage at the Academy to give me a glimpse of what being in the orchestra was really like. It was a bunch of guys, mostly guys, standing around in sports shirts smoking cigarettes and talking about sports, mortgage rates, anything but music. And when the break was over, they all shuffled back onto the Academy stage and did their job, which was to play incredible music and send shivers down my spine. But from my new vantage point, it seemed almost a royal-blue-collar occupation — “Hey, can you give me some more of those shivers over here?”

Perhaps for some, that view would destroy their exalted image of the orchestra. To me, it just made the entire enterprise more interesting, more approachable, more human. Norman Carol went from the tuxedoed hero who caused the first hush and then burst of applause from the Academy crowd each evening to a guy I could imagine trying to get a baseball score between movements. In fact, as he sits and reminisces about 60 years of music-making just days before his last appearance at the Academy as concertmaster (his last Philadelphia appearance, at the Mann Center, was scheduled for July 28th, and he’ll finish up at Saratoga on August 20th) — he brings especially vivid color and intonation to a story about his debut at, of all places, the Vet.