Saturday, February 24, 2018
Stage

After 44 years, principal clarinetist Brian Moorhead retires from the Florida Orchestra

TAMPA — He's had the same dream lately. Brian Moorhead is waiting for a bus carrying fellow musicians of the Florida Orchestra.

He's a meticulous guy. He likes things written out, nailed down. The orchestra's principal clarinetist has enjoyed jazz on occasion, but only what's on the score, no improvisation. He tells his students success is a point on a graph where preparation and opportunity intersect. If either fails, so does the mission.

Now he has arrived at the bus stop but there's no one there. He wakes up and tells his wife, "I missed the bus." The orchestra has left without him.

In fact, it's the other way around. Moorhead, 64, is leaving the orchestra, where he has served as principal clarinetist for 41 years. Anyone who has been to the orchestra in the past four decades has likely heard him play. This weekend's round of concerts will be his last.

He leans forward on a bench in the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, occasionally rocking on his elbows and then looking away. In the rehearsal session that just ended, he learned that music director Michael Francis will honor him at the season finale, Beethoven's "Emperor'' Piano Concerto No. 5. He hopes all the attention will not distract him from playing the concerto or Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, also one of the first pieces he played after joining the orchestra in 1974.

"I just want to be able to do my job," he says.

On Monday, Moorhead distributed a packet of goodbye materials to the other musicians and staff, many of those friendships going back decades. It includes the email he sent them in September announcing his decision to retire at season's end, one reached over a "most restful and reflective" summer with his family, and a few of his favorite sayings in calligraphy.

Included is My Symphony, by 19th century poet William Henry Channing, a list of beatitudes including the desire "To be worthy, not respectable/and wealthy, not rich."

Moorhead was born in Detroit. His mother taught piano, his father built Chevrolets for General Motors. They ferried him to youth hockey and basketball. When he got interested in clarinet at age 10, they got him lessons.

"My parents were very generous with opportunities," he says, and his voice wobbles. They were not stage parents, he explains. More like tour guides who wanted them to see and do and figure it out for themselves.

A few years later, he attended his first concert, Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

"That's kind of when the orchestral bug bit."

Moorhead went on to the University of South Florida and a master's degree at Northwestern University. He won a spot with the orchestra, then called the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony, in 1973. He graduated to first clarinet in 1976.

He enjoys the instrument's ability to blend or to solo when called upon.

"The clarinet has the widest range of all the wind instruments," he says. "So therefore it can play not the highest, not the lowest, but the most number of notes in between. And that fulfills a chameleon-like role as well."

He speaks about music in unbroken paragraphs of subject-verb-object, a pattern learned over 30 years as a full-time associate professor of clarinet at USF. He tells students there are no shortcuts to excellence, that they must learn to listen deeply. But he is the furthest thing from an autocrat.

"I tell my master classes each year, 'I want you to know that we are colleagues. I'm not some kind of guru who's the expert, only one of many small voices in your artistic pursuit or standard.' "

Their questions fill in crevices in his own understanding, forcing him to invent new ways of talking about music in order to reach them. He tells them about opening a fortune cookie once that read, "My student is my teacher."

"And that I will never forget," Moorhead says, with a chuckle — and, again, tears.

He has watched the orchestra evolve through highs and lows under four music directors. He likes the fact that Francis has taken the orchestra into hospitals and schools, even to Tampa International Airport.

"He is infusing such a sense of energy and demand for excellence that had not been a day to day kind of procedure," Moorhead says.

Francis has also recruited new, young talent. Principal oboe John Upton, principal horn David Smith and principal viola Derek Mosloff have all made strong impressions.

"I have to catch myself and say, 'What instrument are they playing?' " Moorhead says. "I'm so taken by the radiance of their artistry. You don't notice their instrument. You just hear them emanate wonderful, beautiful, creative thought."

He will keep his position at USF, spend more time with his grandchildren and play select concerts and festivals. For 11 years, he has collaborated with the Cavani, Alexander, Audubon, and Lark string quartets and performed for many years at the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado.

There are also new opportunities. The next one springs from his friendship with Mark Sforzini, the orchestra's former principal bassoonist. The two reed players sat next to each other for 15 years, developing a sound they jokingly called their "premium blend."

They will play together again soon. The performance started with the a request by the International Clarinet Association of Moorhead, asking if he would give an hourlong recital at their annual meeting.

Moorhead wanted to go even further, by creating a work that would remain in the repertoire for the clarinet. For that he turned to Sforzini, who also composes music. With a commission by Moorhead and another orchestra backer, Sforzini is writing A Concerto for Bassoon and Clarinet: Premium Blend. They will play it at ClarinetFest 2017, which runs July 26-30 in Orlando.

He'll have time to spend with his wife of 41 years, Marian, and four grandsons, ages 4 to 7.

"When I was getting married, someone told me, 'There's no good time to have children. But you fit them into your life.' There's no good time for retirement. But it's time when you do."

After this weekend, Moorhead doubts the dream about the bus stop will return.

"There's another bus coming," he says. "And I still have my luggage."

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

     
               
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