shedding the tux

In 1984, when he was just 24 years old, Philip Pan finished his master’s degree and went straight to work in what he called a “neighborly town” with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Music Director at the time, Roger Nierenberg, was trying to fill the concertmaster vacancy left by David Davidson, who had left to go to Nashville. Nierenberg, conductor Fabio Machete and Pan were all classmates together at Julliard. From academia Pan went straight to work, not taking the usual graduate’s path of meandering through all the sparkling things that piqued his interest before landing the steady job. But that urge to explore didn’t go away, it simply laid dormant, waiting for its time. Pan’s time seems to have come.
“I’m used to having a fulltime job with benefits, this is the first time I’ve been completely on my own, so it’s scary, but I’m enjoying the me-time.”
The me-time Pan is talking about is the sabbatical he is taking from the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra during the 2008-2009 season. Last year’s lockout of the symphony players indirectly inspired him to strike out in pursuit of some of his other interests. Pan spoke to EU about some of his plans while he is away from his first chair and tux.
“On the one hand we kept pretty darn busy putting on benefit concerts, trying to get the word out about the lockout. But I did a lot less rehearsing and performing in that time. I sort of realized after the very unexpected break, putting that time together with all of the fascination with new interests I’d developed in the past few years, different kinds of music, outside of symphonic music, I realized I would really really like to have this kind of time. I’d love to have Saturdays and weekends when I could go out and hear other kinds of music. There are all sorts of things going on around town at the Arena, Florida Theatre, the ballet, hearing my friends play at Freebird or Jack Rabbits or various places they play. I just love all of it so much. The difficulty is in figuring out how I can do it all. I don’t want to give up any of it. I want to have my cake and eat it too.”
As the concertmaster and a union representative for the musicians, the lockout certainly put Pan in an awkward place for an artist. But the action raised community awareness of the struggling institution and made those that really care about music come together in support of their players and the institution of the symphony.
“It showed an underlying fragility of the organization. It was that close to serious financial difficulty.”
But Pan insists that the players never refused to play and never went “on strike.” Pan and the players union took their seats again after resolving some differences. Some of the players may have continued to be bitter, but Pan decided not to take that route. He got back to work and helped the organization move past that troubled time.
“During the period we were out, I fought pretty hard and got pretty upset at times with the way things were going and with the leadership of the organization, but basically I don’t feel the adversarial approach ultimately will work,” Pan said. “When we got back to work all of the musicians came back quite strong. We didn’t lower our performance level or drop our standards, we didn’t go in there and try to prove something.”
It is possible that his muse for last season was the glimmer of hope that once everything was right with the JSO, he could go out and pursue some of his dreams. One pursuit involved his wife, JSO flutist Rhonda Cassano and the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville. A contemporary music series featuring classical musicians they call Sound Effects.
On September 14th I attended a sold out performance of the “Roots Revisited” installment, which featured Philip Pan, violin, Rhonda Cassano, flute, Grace Mihi Bahng, cello, Jesus Alfonzo, viola and Kayo Ishimaru, harp. A collection of Pan’s co-workers at JSO as well as a far-flung assortment of friends and even a former classmate of his and Fabio’s, Jesus Alfonzo.
The informal and educational concert was a perfect afternoon of entertainment for my 12-year old daughter and myself. The rotating musicians performed a variety of 20th century classical compositions inspired by folk music. Everything from Japanese-inspired folk songs replicated on harp and flute to some classic barn-burning bluegrass. There were times during the performance where it seemed as though the music would lift Pan out of his chair and he would be flung around by his violin as he delved emotionally deep into the songs.
His heart was certainly in the music.
“I’ve always been fond of contemporary art in all forms.”
The last installment, previous to “Roots Revisited” he and Cassano programmed all music from contemporary Jacksonville composers. The next will feature Clarinet. Look for it in April. But Sound Effects, albeit a small and intimate setting, which Pan admits he likes (he has a penchant for chamber music) is not his end goal.
“I want to do everything I couldn’t do with the symphony, hopefully. Working with the symphony is such an all-encompassing job it leaves you so little time during the season.”
Pan has been discovering more and more contemporary music since undertaking the Sound Effects series, and it has challenged his perception of music. The fringe has drawn him in.
“Living in our times, in our generation, we share this beautiful world and we experience it at the same time, and art is an interpretation of what the artist sees, whether its visual art or music. I always like contemporary music, even the way-out stuff. Challenging stuff I like even more because I really like to try to figure out where someone is coming from, what they are thinking. Artists, of course, tend to push the envelope and try to be ahead of the times. To me, contemporary art is really the most intriguing form.”
So in spite of the fact that he says there is nothing in the world like creating music with an entire symphony, he wants to get away from all of that and pursue what I imagine every symphonic concertmaster wants to pursue in their most quiet moments – heavy metal.
“I’m leaning towards aardvark progressive metal,” Pan admits quickly.
Thus far he has been focusing on his “me-time,” by discovering for himself what kind of people he can work with and what he is good at. He’s discovering music that he likes to play that he has never played before.
“I’m finding out what a violin can do and some things no one ever knew a violin could do,” Pan says, and I imagine him eying his electric violin, sitting there in a room with him begging him to plug it in and play.
“The Viper is the model of the electric violin made by the Wood Violin Company. In fact, the inventor, Mark Wood, was a guest of JSO a few years ago and we had dueling vipers during a concert. It’s an electric violin that was conceived as a rock and roll instrument, because that’s what it does better than any other electric violin. What’s remarkable about this instrument is that it is so well designed. It’s been embraced and used professionally by many many top players in major country bands, jazz, rock. It’s just a very very good electric instrument that sounds very good. Most [electric violins] sound like crap. It’s the first electric violin I was ever interested in and I think it has so much potential. It does more things than most violins are even capable of. It’s a completely different animal,” Pan raves of his favorite new instrument.
It looks like a flying V guitar, but small. Rhonda makes him turn it down at home.
“I’m looking to play with musicians of different styles. One of the things that is exciting that I’ve been doing is working with a brand new progressive rock group called The Architect Sound,” says Pan. “They do very inventive things with the way they use instruments and they were looking for some string sounds.”
Although Pan may still be looking for the right metal outfit to shred his violin with, he has found some people that can help him escape the hundreds-of-years-old compositions to which he is accustomed. The bass player from the band Fuseboxx Funk was now playing with a newly formed band called The Architect Sound. You may recall Pan playing with Fuseboxx Funk when they appeared with JSO as part of their Plugged In series. So when they asked him to throw down, he excitedly accepted the challenge and they have already worked on a couple of songs.
“We will be playing live around town pretty soon.”
Previously he has played with some country bands and just this summer he appeared on JJ Grey and Mofro’s new album, as well as on stage with them at the Blackwater Sol Revue at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre.
“If JJ feels like he would like more strings, I’d be happy to go on tour.”
Will you be seeing Philip Pan again? Well, if you attend JSO concerts you are likely to spy him in the audience as he plans to watch his friends (and family) perform as often as he can, but he will not be donning his work-tux this season. Since he says he wants to do everything, he says he doubts he will return as concertmaster. “But it’s not for lack of love for the organization or the music we play,” he insists, that position simply consumes too much of his time. So will he return to the symphony at all?
“I am leaving doors open. Things could happen, and if they happen in a certain direction then I’ll go with them.”