Croatian Ivan Zugelj Charlotte Symphony Player
Helping the architecture of a musical work take shape during a performance.
Posted on Sun, Feb. 13, 2005
The challenge of the first-chair job is that other players are taking cues from there. "If you do something wrong," Zugelj explained, "somebody else may make a mistake. Because people are depending on you." But what's "tremendously gratifying," he added, is helping the architecture of a musical work take shape during a performance. "You get this weird thing going where you can sense what the people around you are thinking. It's an awareness that happens in a totally indescribably way."
CHARLOTTE SYMPHONY PLAYERS | SEVENTH IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES
He changed name, instruments
Classical Music Writer
The noble strains of Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 1 will cap off the Charlotte Symphony concerts next weekend. As with much of Elgar's music, the symphony's broad melodies and grand sonorities are a musical afterglow of the mighty British Empire of 100 years ago. The sonic underpinning will come in part from the orchestra's double basses, whose co-principal player since 1974 has been Ivan Zugelj.
HOMETOWN: McKeesport, Pa., about 20 miles from Pittsburgh.
GOING BACK TO ROOTS: The name on Zugelj's birth certificate is John Zugel, a name he was still using when he came to Charlotte. John had come from his mother's father, a native of Croatia who switched from Ivan when he came to the United States. Zugelj's father's family had dropped their surname's final j after immigrating from Slovenia. About 10 years after the maternal grandfather's death, Zugelj was drawn to the original versions. "I can still remember my grandfather saying he didn't like the name John," Zugelj said. "I remember thinking, `If I'm named for this guy, why should I have a name he didn't like?' " So he legally switched.
FALSE START: In the first or second grade, Zugelj got an urge to play the accordion. His parents bought an instrument and set him up with lessons. After about six months, he lost interest. But he was stuck. "My parents said, `We spent a lot of money on this. You're going to learn to play it.' "
SILVER LINING: One morning a few years later, Zugelj couldn't get up from his bed. He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralyzing disease set off by a reaction to a polio vaccine. He had to stay home for the sixth grade, studying with tutors. But the ailment at least got him free of the accordion, Zugelj said.
RECOVERY: Thanks in part to physical therapy, Zugelj returned to school for the seventh grade. "They were looking for bass players," he recalled. The theory was that kids who had already studied music were better able than beginners to pick out the pitches of low notes. That led to Zugelj. "I had to really work at it," he recalled. "I had a hard time."
CHOICE: While he was laid up by Guillain-Barre, Zugelj said, he read a lot and "turned into a science freak." His high school teachers thought he would end up in some scientific field. But he did well in high school music competitions, and he "astounded" his teachers by deciding to aim that way. He earned a music degree from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
SOUTHLAND: Zugel landed a job in the Atlanta Symphony, where he spent three seasons -- interrupted by not-quite-finished work on a master's degree. When his former wife had a shot at the first-chair flute job with the Charlotte Symphony, Zugelj auditioned and won a spot, too, sharing the top double-bass position.
PERSPECTIVE: The challenge of the first-chair job is that other players are taking cues from there. "If you do something wrong," Zugelj explained, "somebody else may make a mistake. Because people are depending on you." But what's "tremendously gratifying," he added, is helping the architecture of a musical work take shape during a performance. "You get this weird thing going where you can sense what the people around you are thinking. It's an awareness that happens in a totally indescribably way."
Guest conductor Anthony Bramall leads Henry Purcell's "Chacony in G minor," Joseph Haydn's Cello Concerto in C major (with cellist Daniel MĆ¼ller-Schott) and Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 1.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
WHERE: Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, 130 N. Tryon St.
DETAILS: (704) 972-2000; www.charlottesymphony.org .
This is one in a series of features on Charlotte Symphony members, interviewed by Observer classical music writer Steven Brown. (704) 358-6194;email@example.com .