Big Fish Q&A with BSO Concertmaster and First Violin Jonathan Carney

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Jonathan Carney imparts a degree of verisimilitude to the hoary double-entendre riff “outstanding in his field.” Figuratively, as concertmaster and first violinist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Carney has been repeatedly celebrated for the passion he brings to his performances and the dedication he brings to his role of assistant conductor. Literally, as paterfamilias of a small clan that resides on a 50-acre northern Carroll County farm “in the middle of nowhere near the Pennsylvania border,” as he puts it, Carney can survey his homestead while — yes — out standing in his field.

Carney was born in Tenafly, N.J., located just outside New York City, where, he notes, “I spent most of my formative years wandering around.” Mind you, he was not exactly an idler, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the city’s renowned Juilliard School. (His DNA exudes musicianship: Carney’s father, mother, two sisters, and brother also graduated from Juilliard.) Via a fellowship, he continued on to study at the Royal College of Music in London.

At the invitation of principal conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, Carney signed on as concertmaster of the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991, a post he held until 2002, while simultaneously serving in the same capacity with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (1993 to 2000) and the Basque National Orchestra (1995 to 2002). Carney returned to the United States to join the BSO as its concertmaster in 2002, frequently leading the orchestra, in addition to performing regularly as a soloist.

A prolific recording artist, Carney has covered the standard repertoire (Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Dvorak, et al), while also examining the works of contemporary composers such as Michael Nyman, John Cage, and Bruno Moderna. Backed by the Royal Philharmonic, he and his pianist mother, Gloria, performed as soloists on the 1997 CD Parlor Pieces. (Listen to Carney solo on “Romance,” from Shostakovich’s The Gadfly.)

His ax, so to speak: a 1687 Stradivarius. (Memo to violin gearheads: He plays the Mercur-Avery.) But Carney, 49, can handle a bat as well as a baton. On the farm where he lives with his wife, Ruthie, and their 14-year-old violinist daughter Grace – plus, when they’re home, 21-year-old daughter Hannah and 19-year-old son Luke – Carney has fashioned a baseball field. In fact, Carney, his wife, kids, parents, and siblings constitute the starting 10, including designated hitter, for a baseball team.    

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.
    
All things in moderation whilst living and learning.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

I have many day-to-day goals, as Ruthie and I live by a 24-hour rule. In other words, we never plan more than a day in advance. I do have one very singular longterm purpose, though, and that is to practice. I had a bit of an epiphany when I was 15 — that if I was ever to become a violinist, or, for that matter, anything at all, then I better get my butt in gear and practice. I still do that more than anything else every single day.

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?

Get plenty of rest before a performance (received at age 22 in London), and that practice does not make perfect, but perfect practice does (received in New York City daily from ages six through 18).

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it?
 
I generally make a point of not giving advice, so I am notorious at not following it, either, particularly bad advice, which is the majority of what you get offered.
 
What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

1) You are only as good as your last performance.
2) Good friends are hard to find.
3) My family is everything to me.

What is the best moment of the day?

When I first wake up and practice with my first cup of coffee.

What is on your bedside table?

A book on Ireland’s history.

What is your favorite local charity?

Two: the Baltimore School for the Arts and Mid-Atlantic German Shepherd Rescue.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Although mine is one of the most difficult careers to be successful in, where else do you get to play all day for a living?
 
Why are you successful?

I have been very lucky to be at the right place at the right time — and I never say no.

During your BSO tenure, which has been the most challenging piece of music that you have performed? Why? And which has been the most fun to play?

I think that Stravinsky is a formidable composer to understand and serve, and that his Petrushka is his most demanding work. For fun, Mahler 5 is the bee’s knees.
 
You serve as artistic advisor for the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras and as an artist in residence (and board member) at the Baltimore School for the Arts. What characteristics distinguish today’s young musicians from those in past generations, notably yours?

Kids and young artists are coddled so much more these days. I would come out of half of my lessons crying. PC musical training is going to cause issues in dealing with the inherent problems within the profession. The Baltimore School for the Arts understands this, and its rigorous educational system places a child in a much better position for success in life. Not just as an artist, but as a person. It is singularly the best school I have ever had the pleasure to work with.
    
Your BSO bio indicates that, growing up, you occasionally subbed on electric bass in your father’s jazz group. Did you ever entertain notions of a career (or a side project) in jazz or rock/pop? What non-classical music do you listen to now?

Even though I grew up with so much music around me, my parents understood the importance of diverse life experiences, in addition to activities that encouraged musical socialization. An orchestra is a microcosm of society, and learning to thrive in one places a young person in a much better place to enjoy life. That is why it is such a shame that so much emphasis in our public education system has gone away from arts programs. I have been playing in orchestras since I was seven.

I enjoy my kids’ eclectic musical tastes. We have a folk festival called FarmFest every year at our farm, which my eldest daughter organizes. Each year it gets bigger. Last year we had a dozen bands playing for 12 hours to over 700 people. It is my favorite — and most stressful — day of the year.
 
Even though I have dabbled in stuff, I have never ever wanted to do anything else seriously other than play the violin.
 
 



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