Norman Carol Bows Out

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

The concertmaster job is a complex of onstage and offstage responsibilities. He plays the first-violin parts like all the other first violins; he also plays whatever incidental violin solos are built into pieces. Before the orchestra even begins rehearsing a new piece, the concertmaster must decide on the bowings — literally, which way the violin bows will move on each note. He also sits, in on all auditions, and tends to be the player closest to the musical director. Musically, he sets the tone of how the orchestra sounds as an instrument itself; no matter what conductor happens to be "playing" it. Each orchestra has a sound — a combination of each player’s talent and training and the quality of his or her instrument — and it is the concertmaster’s job to lead that sound, by example or by tyranny. Carol has always chosen the former. ”I’m not one of these concertmasters who thinks I’m the most important person," he says.

After three years in New Orleans, Carol left to take the concertmaster position at the Minneapolis Symphony, and expected to finish his career in St. Paul. But then a contract dispute broke out between the Philadelphia Orchestra and its longtime concertmaster, Anshel Brusilow, who chose to leave the orchestra to become music director of a new Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia. Carol auditioned and was offered the job.


AROUND THE SAME TIME, he met his new violin, the prized 1743 Guarnerius del Gesu. While teaching in Aspen, he met young Leonard Slatkin (today the music director of the St. Louis Symphony). Slatkin’s mother, Eleanor — a well-known string player herself, as was her husband, Felix — heard Carol playing the instrument on which he had made his first fame, a 1695 Stradivarius, and told him, "You know, you need a much better violin than that. "

When Felix Slatkin died, his wife proposed selling his violin, the Guarnerius, to Carol, and brought it to Minneapolis for a test drive. "I fell in love with it so madly," Carol recalls, "that I went out and played solo on it the next night. I had to have it. I teasingly tell my wife it’s a good thing it wasn’t another woman, although that might have been cheaper." The Philadelphia Orchestra eventually helped him buy it with a large no-interest loan. Carol won’t say what he paid for the instrument, bur a local expert has appraised it at $2.5 million.

When Carol finally arrived in Philadelphia for his new job with his new fiddle, he walked into a nine-week strike. "It was perhaps the most trying and depressing time in my life," he says. "I was sitting around the house, twiddling my thumbs, thinking the strike would never end. I received several calls from members of the board in Minneapolis — which I had left, bear in mind — asking if there was anything they could do for me financially or any other way. I received zero calls from the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra board. This is the new concertmaster coming to Philadelphia. Does that tell you something? But I’ve always been able to get along with people. I have always thought that no one is indispensable in this life." He filled some of the time working out at the Jewish Y at Broad and Pine and playing tennis.