Norman Carol Bows Out

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

Carol finally made his solo debut the day after Christmas 1966. He chose the violin concerto by modern composer Samuel Barber. "I happen to have a special feeling for it," Carol says. "But what I didn’t realize when I chose it was that in 1941, the owner of the Guarnerius before Slatkin, Albert Spalding, had premiered the Barber concerto with Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. My performance was almost 25 years later to the day. I have played it several times since then."

From 1966, Carol shared the glories and miseries of the orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. For the moment, he tends to focus on the glories (although he is talking about writing his memoirs, which will likely give a more balanced portrait). "When I came here it was the heyday of Ormandy as music director," Carol says. "There were things about Ormandy that were absolutely incredible. I don’t know any conductors who could accompany a soloist, regardless of the instrument, as Ormandy could. Ormandy had a sixth sense of what the soloist was going to do, and it didn’t have to be played exactly the same way every performance. The best way to describe it is that he was a tiger that went and jumped to the orchestra at certain spots. It was a great talent he had. He allowed the solo players a great deal of expressive freedom. If you play something night after night, especially on tour, you want to flavor it differently."

Carol also remembers the heyday of the Philadelphia Sound. "Was it a PR thing?" he asks. "I don’t know. The Philadelphia Sound … I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked about the Philadelphia Sound. Well, Ormandy had a certain sound in his ear, being an ex-violinist. It was this incredible string sound."

When Riccardo Muti came, critics complained that he dismantled Ormandy’s wall of sound. "First of all, I don’t think the sound is something to miss," Carol says forcefully. "But when Muti wanted that sound, it was just naturally right there. We were able to dredge it up. Certainly in some of the Italian music that we played, I’ll say it was there."

Carol had many great successes with the sometimes-browbeating Ormandy. "I remember we did one crazy recording of [Also Sprach] Zarathustra with Ormandy at the Met [the old Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad Street]. He convinced the company he could record the piece in, like, an hour. The fiddle solos in it are one take, and that is unheard of.

"I also remember we were recording the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with Itzhak Perlman, and Ormandy conducting. At one place in the last movement it was very fast playing. Ormandy stopped and turned around to Perlman and said, ‘Itzhak, you know, you’re running here.’ And just like that, Perlman turned around and said, ‘You know that’s very difficult for me to do.’"