When John Sharp was appointed as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal cellist in the spring 1986, he already had served three seasons in the same post with the Cincinnati Symphony and played for a year with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
But the Waco, Texas, native was just 27 – one of the youngest musicians ever appointed to a top position in the orchestra. He faced the challenge of trying to fill the shoes of Frank Miller, who held the post from 1959 through 1985, a legendary player he calls the “granddaddy of all principal cellists.”
Looking back, Sharp admits that he was both awed by his new musical surroundings and a bit intimidated. “I felt incredibly fortunate,” he said, “and I also knew that I had my work cut out for me. I was very young, and, in the scheme of things, I wasn’t very experienced. I’d played four years in professional orchestras, but there were Beethoven symphonies I had never played, and there were guys back there [in the cello section who] had played them hundreds of times. So I had to have some humility about it.”
But nearly 30 years later, the memory of Miller has largely faded, and now Sharp is the long-serving, well-respected veteran. Audiences will get a chance to hear him up close March 26-29 when he will be the soloist Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85, conducted by Riccardo Muti.
The contemplative, elegiac work, which the English composer wrote in the summer of 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, gained wide popularity in the 1960s when it was championed by famed cellist Jacqueline du Pré. “She owned the piece,” Sharp said. “It was phenomenal the way she played it. She sort of ruined it for everyone else.”
As the CSO’s principal cellist, he performs solo every two or three years with the orchestra, opportunities that he called gratifying but also nerve-wracking. “It’s not always simple to walk out on stage in front of a lot of people,” he said. “You have stage fright. You can worry, ‘What if I forget? What if I mess everything up?’ It can be a bit of a tightrope. Anything can happen. It’s like the Olympics. The guy skiing down the hill can wipe out.”
After taking private lessons in Waco from Lev Aronson, who managed to survive imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps and later taught such noted cellists as Lynn Harrell and Ralph Kirshbaum, Sharp went on to gain his master’s degree at the Juilliard School in New York City. While still in the Cincinnati Symphony, he auditioned for the CSO’s principal cellist position. As one of three finalists, he was asked to come back twice and try out in the position, performing a total of four weeks with music director Georg Solti and the CSO – an opportunity he recalls as an “incredible thrill.”
“It was my first time playing in the Chicago Symphony with Solti,” Sharp said. “We played the Beethoven Seventh [Symphony] and we played the ‘1812 Overture,’ and I was really floored. When the orchestra let loose, it was an amazing sound, an amazing experience.”
After he won the job and got to work, Sharp was struck by the players’ cohesion and the orchestra’s uncommon dedication. “There was a very high level of commitment among the players – a professionalism that I had never quite experienced before,” he said. “And I hadn’t been in a cello section before that was that strong. Cellos in an orchestra have to fight to make themselves heard at some point. You have to play in a big way, when it’s necessary, I had never really been in a group where they took the bull by horns like that. When it was time, they really went for it. They were a force, and they were really engaged.”
As much as he admired Solti, Sharp believes the orchestra took important strides forward under music director Daniel Barenboim, who led the CSO from 1991 to 2006. Barenboim brought a more subtle, less angular sound to the orchestra, he contends. “Barenboim had a very different style in mind,” Sharp said, “and I think ultimately it was healthy for the orchestra. It was a much more flexible style, and he pushed people to create a different kind of a sound, especially the strings, which marks the orchestra still today.”
Sharp calls current music director Riccardo Muti the “complete package” – a top-notch musician and conductor, with one of the best baton techniques around, and an intellectual deeply versed in musical and cultural history. “Muti sort of galvanized the orchestra,” Sharp said. “He’s a very strong figure and strong leader – very charismatic. When he’s conducting, he is 100 percent there and extremely engaged, and he expects everyone to be the same. So there is a great energy that comes together when we play and a great understanding and response. I think the orchestra sounds incredibly good. It’s a thrill to play with him.”
MORE FROM SHARP:
Choosing the cello as a 10-year-old: “I started in public school. The lady came around in fourth grade, and she played the violin for us and said, ‘We’re going to have a strings class. Who would like to sign up?’ I was just at an age when I was trying art lessons, bowling lessons – all kinds of things. I stuck my hand up. I did have a connection in that my aunt studied music in college, and she minored in cello. So I raised my hand said, ‘I’ll play the cello.’”
Winning third place at the 1986 International Tchaikovsky Competition: “It was always a dream to enter the competition at some point. It is a huge undertaking – a lot of repertoire to have ready. And, of course, you know the competition is going to be fierce. At that time, the Russian musicians were prepared more or less the way they used to prepare the Olympic athletes. So they weren’t like us dumb Americans. By the time they got to the competition, they were like professional level. We were more on our own.”
Recalling the CSO of 1986: “It was a bit more crusty back then. They had fought these union labor battles and a lot of these guys were children of Eastern European immigrants. They were not shy and retiring. They had struggled, and they had been in the orchestra when it was not a full-time job. The pay was not good, and there were no benefits. You could be fired at the drop of a hat. This generation, they fought to make the union be a real union and were able to turn the job into a living wage.”
Summing up the lessons of his CSO tenure: “Over time, hopefully, you just become a better musician – all that that entails. You learn from other people, you learn from your mistakes. Maybe you learn what’s essential in music. One can get distracted by a thousand things if you’re sitting with a piece of music. Maybe I realize better than I did before what’s the important part and what’s less important. And understanding how flexible you have to be playing in orchestra. It’s not the same as playing with a metronome in your room.”
Kyle MacMillan, the former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a locally based freelance writer and reviewer.