Norman Carol, violinist who led the Philadelphia Orchestra on their 1973 China tour with Nixon – obituary

Norman Carol: in his military service he played in the Sixth Army Band with Chet Baker and André Previn
Norman Carol: in his military service he played in the Sixth Army Band with Chet Baker and André Previn

Norman Carol, who has died aged 95, was an American orchestral violinist who led the Philadelphia Orchestra when they accompanied President Nixon’s 1973 visit to China; their repertoire in Beijing included Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for which Madame Mao had a fixation.

Western music had been forbidden in China since the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, and conservatory musicians were publicly shamed. The ban would only properly be lifted on Mao’s death, in 1976. One Chinese pianist in the audience recalled that many of his fellows, starved of music, had tears in their eyes during the Philadelphians’ 1973 performance.

Musical diplomacy was part of China’s drive to thaw relations with the West, and the Philadelphia Orchestra represented a big prize, as they had just played at Nixon’s inauguration, and had a solid “pro-China” record, having given a China Relief concert in 1940. Their six-concert programme, however, represented a minefield.

“We were told, for instance, that we could not play any Tchaikovsky because the Chinese and the Russians were at loggerheads,” recalled Carol. Beethoven was the obvious choice because, although temporarily forbidden, he held the status of a Confucius-like sage in China, and his Pastoral Symphony could be interpreted as depicting a peasant society which passes through turmoil to serenity.

President Nixon with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai on his earlier, 1972 visit to China
President Nixon with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai on his earlier, 1972 visit to China - Pictures from History

As a counterpoint, the orchestra had to play Yellow River Concerto, written during the Cultural Revolution by a committee of composers. Carol did his bit for the entente by temporarily swapping his instrument for a committee-built Chinese violin, played by Situ Hua-cheng, leader of the Central Philharmonic Orchestra of Peking.

Carol had joined the Philadelphia Orchestra as leader in 1966, spending 28 seasons on the front desk under Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti and Wolfgang Sawallisch. There were also countless guest conductors, including “very, very good, and very, very bad ones” he said, naming no names: “a concertmaster [leader] has to be a diplomat.”

On at least five occasions he had to step up because the soloist unexpectedly cancelled. Other times he was the advertised soloist, such as in the orchestra’s first performance of Hindemith’s Violin Concerto in 1980.

Members of the orchestra recalled Carol as a “dashing, comfortable, even swashbuckling leader” whose playing was “bold, expressive and hall-filling”. In many respects he embodied the rich “Philadelphia sound” for which they are still known today.

Norman Carol was born in Philadelphia on July 1 1928, the son of Max Carol, a Ukrainian immigrant whose love of music outclassed his musical talent, and his wife Anna. Norman performed a Mozart concerto in public at the age of nine.

He outgrew violins as fast as other boys outgrew shoes. By 1939 he was on his fourth instrument, a 1784 seven-eighths-size Gragnani insured for $2,000, though he cheekily told a newspaper that he would rather be playing baseball.

While at Gratz High School, Philadelphia, he had lessons with Efrem Zimbalist at the city’s Curtis Institute, where he later taught. On one occasion he was chosen to turn pages for the visiting Jascha Heifetz, who “was everybody’s god”.

Serge Koussevitzky heard the 17-year-old Carol perform Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole at Tanglewood summer music festival and invited him to play with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1947 he made his New York debut at Town Hall. During the Korean War he was called up for military service and wound up in the Sixth Army Band with the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and the conductor and pianist André Previn.

On demobilisation he spent three years as leader of the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra followed by six years with the Minneapolis Orchestra. In 1966 Ormandy recruited him to his hometown band. The Philadelphia Orchestra returned to China in 1993 but he retired the following year because of damaged nerves in his bowing arm. He turned instead to chamber music, observing: “You never retire from music. They haven’t yet found a place to send music addicts.”

In 1952 Norman Carol married Elinor Trobbe, whom he had met during his military service. He is survived by a son and a daughter, whom he would summon to dinner by whistling the opening theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Norman Carol, born July 1 1928, died April 28 2024