STAGE LONG­TIME CLAR­INETIST RE­TIR­ING

> Con­cert­mas­ter also leav­ing MSO

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Go Out - By Jon W. Sparks Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

This week­end’s per­for­mances of “Carmina Bu­rana” by the Mem­phis Sym­phony Or­ches­tra will be a farewell for one of the MSO’S long­est-serv­ing mem­bers, as well as its con­cert­mas­ter.

James Ghol­son, who will re­tire as prin­ci­pal clar­inetist, ar­rived in Mem­phis in 1972 to be pro­fes­sor of clar­inet at Mem­phis State Univer­sity. By chance, there was also a sec­ond- chair open­ing at the MSO that he se­cured, so for four decades, he’s been teach­ing and per­form­ing. “It’s al­ways a chal­lenge, but I’ve been able to cob­ble to­gether a de­cent liv­ing,” he says.

This week­end’s Mas­ter­works per­for­mances will also be a farewell per­for­mance for the MSO’S con­cert­mas­ter, Su­sanna Perry Gil­more, who has taken the po­si­tion of con­cert­mas­ter of the Omaha Sym­phony. She says Ghol­son has been trea­sured for his good spir­its as well as the joy he takes in mak­ing mu­sic.

“One of my first mem­o­ries at one of my first con­certs here 15 years ago was with Alan Bal­ter con­duct­ing Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­phony, and I re­mem­ber be­ing very moved by the clar­inet. That was my first im­pres­sion of Jim: He knows how to spin a melody like only a clar­inet can.”

When Ghol­son was ap­pointed first- chair clar­inetist in 1979, he be­came one of the ear­li­est African-amer­i­can prin­ci­pal mu­si­cians among Amer­i­can or­ches­tras, as well as the first African-amer­i­can prin­ci­pal clar­inetist at the MSO.

His ca­reer in­cludes work­ing with all four of the MSO’S mu­sic di­rec­tors, start­ing with Vin­cent de­frank. Later, when Alan Bal­ter took over, Ghol­son says, “It was a lit­tle strange at first.” Bal­ter was also a clar­inetist and, as it hap­pened, there was a lit­tle his­tory be­tween the two.

“I’d known Alan Bal­ter when I was at Interlochen In­ter­na­tional Mu­sic Camp, and I hadn’t seen him for a long time,” Ghol­son says. “I was sur­prised and a lit­tle ner­vous too be­cause we were com­peti­tors at mu­sic camp.” But they worked to­gether well, Ghol­son call­ing Bal­ter “cool and classy.”

“When David Loebel came in as mu­sic di­rec­tor, we read a lot of the mu­sic lit­er­a­ture,” says Ghol­son, who en­joyed the new con­duc­tor’s em­pha­sis on do­ing new mu­sic. It was also the time when the or­ches­tra moved into the Can­non Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter. Since then, he’s per­formed with mu­sic di­rec­tor Mei-ann Chen in the two sea­sons she’s been at the MSO’S helm.

While much of the sym­phony’s em­pha­sis in re­cent years has been on reach­ing out to the com­mu­nity, it’s some­thing that, Ghol­son notes, has been around since de­frank’s ten­ure when the or­ches­tra played at schools, and in Bal­ter’s days when it played at dif­fer­ent venues around town.

For Ghol­son, both as an ed­u­ca­tor and a per­former, the out­reach is es­sen­tial to widen­ing the au­di­ence. “The mu­si­cal clas­sics are so en­dur­ing,” he says, “but in Mem­phis and in most of the United States, a lot of peo­ple don’t grow up hear­ing them. ... (W)hat the sym­phony is try­ing to do is reach a broader range of in­di­vid­u­als and ac­cli­mate them to the sound of the or­ches­tra and the in­tel­lec­tual ba­sis and weight of the ideas used in mu­sic.”

It’s about con­vey­ing the pas­sion for clas­si­cal mu­sic to chil­dren, Ghol­son says, in­clud­ing “think­ing about ways kids can learn about skill sets that make clas­si­cal mu­si­cians peo­ple that have done well in school, who read well and peo­ple that are gen­er­ally well cultured and good learn­ers.”

That’s one rea­son Ghol­son made sure his son Christopher took clar­inet lessons. Now 28, Christopher Ghol­son has carved out a name for him­self as the award-win­ning record pro­ducer and rapper Drumma Boy.

“We’d talk about lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic,” Ghol­son says of the days when he’d take young Christopher to or­ches­tra re­hearsals. “Now we have con­stant dis­cus­sions and de­bates about some of the lyrics in rap mu­sic!”

The se­nior Ghol­son, who has a mas­ter’s of mu­sic and a doc­tor­ate of mu­si­cal arts from The Catholic Univer­sity in Washington, also is au­thor of a Civil War novel that grew out of his in­ter­est in that great con­flict.

“Feets” is the story of a young African-amer­i­can from Mem­phis in the lat­ter days of the Civil War. Ghol­son has vis­ited bat­tle­fields and has done con­sid­er­able re­search on the is­sues fac­ing African-amer­i­cans in that time.

And there may be an­other book brew­ing once Ghol­son closes out his time with the univer­sity and the sym­phony.

“I’m go­ing to take it easy for a year,” he says. “I’ll do a lit­tle play­ing be­cause I love it, but I have a wide range of in­ter­ests. I’ve put in a good 40 years; now I’m look­ing for my 40 acres and a mule.”

Bran­don Dill/spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

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