Norman Carol Bows Out

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

ONE OF NORMAN CAROL’S favorite subjects — besides sports and his family — is the phenomenon of being "struck by lightning." That’s when the normally deliberate pace of life as a fiddle player — you know where you’re going to be and what you’re going to be playing often years in advance — is blown all to pieces by a last-minute cancellation by the scheduled soloist. When the bolt strikes, the concertmaster is usually the one who gets struck, and then stuck with the responsibility of preparing another solo piece in weeks or even days (instead of the usual months).

Getting struck by lightning can be a chaotic but wonderful experience. It is a nightmare with a happy ending because, ultimately, it is a chance for a player who has settled down from life on the classical music road to relive the highs and lows of a touring soloist.

Carol is proud to say that he’s been struck by lightning five times. The most extreme case was in 1979. "Isaac Stem was supposed to play with us," Carol recalls, "and his mother died the night before. I came into rehearsal that day, and they were looking for a soloist. Bill Stokking, the first cellist, and I ended up playing the Brahms Double Concerto that night."

Last winter, for the first and last time in his career, Carol struck back. He had announced in August that ’93-94 would be his farewell season, and he was scheduled to play his last solos with the orchestra from January 7th to the 11th. But his shoulder pain was getting worse. And on December 19th, his father died at age 96.

Several days later, Norman Carol announced that he was canceling his last solo performances. Guest conductor Zdenek Macal respectfully decided to add additional sections of an already scheduled orchestral piece rather than striking anyone else with lightning.

Today, Carol refuses to belabor the drama of having to cancel his solo farewell to the Academy — even though he had been scheduled to perform the Barber violin concerto, and with the cancellation went the artistic symmetry of debuting and retiring as Philadelphia concertmaster with the same piece. He shrugs his shoulders. "I guess I realized," he says, "that I really didn’t have anything more to prove."