STAGE LONGTIME CLARINETIST RETIRING
> Concertmaster also leaving MSO
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.”