Norman Carol Bows Out

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

"Last October," he says, "those of us who wanted to volunteered to go down and play the national anthem on the field. Rendell ‘conducted’ us — although the guys watched me. I’ve had a lot of thrills in the orchestra business. But being there and actually touching home plate in Veterans Stadium!"

Why does Carol try so hard to be so easy? It only takes a glance at the rave Time magazine review of his debut at Town Hall to understand just how seriously the world has always wanted to take him. His 1949 portrait shows an intense young man with dark shadowy eyes; the write-up proclaimed the 20-year-old "was more than a comer, he had arrived." And it was true: Even at that age, he had already been a comer for 11 years. Born in Strawberry Mansion and raised in West Oak Lane — his Ukrainian-born father Max was in commercial real estate, but spent most of his free time as a spirited patron of local music institutions — Norman Carol began playing the violin at six and debuted locally as a soloist with the WPA Symphony at nine. His normalcy only occasionally got in the way of his career: He broke a finger playing football when he was 12, and had to play a concert with his finger in a cast.

At 13, Carol was accepted at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with the legendary Efrem Zimbalist Sr. and came to the attention of conductor Eugene Ormandy. Carol dislikes the term prodigy, but there was no question that his talent was prodigious. At 17, after graduating from Curtis, he became the youngest first violinist to be a member of any major orchestra when Serge Koussevitsky hired him for the Boston Symphony.

After two seasons in Boston, he made that first big New York recital appearance: The New York Times called him "a remarkable musician," and in no time he was much in demand as a soloist. But halfway through his first full season as a star, Carol was drafted into the Army for two years. He returned as a soloist. In 1953, he made his first triumphant return to his hometown, for a recital at the Academy. The next year brought his first appearance as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

But it wasn’t long before his life of musical one-night stands seemed incompatible with being a husband and, soon after, a father. His wife, Elinor, is said to be his temperamental opposite — flamboyant where he is reticent, and described by friends as a better teller of Norman Carol stories than he. (One close member of the orchestra family says Carol is "a person whom no one knows very well — very ironic and sardonic, but very private.” They had a daughter, Leslie, in 1953, and five years later, just before their son Daniel was born, Carol took a full-time job as concertmaster of the New Orleans Symphony.