Spring 2019 Issue
From Romania With Love;
An Interview with Calin Lupanu and Monica Boboc
by Amy Orsinger Whitehead
Charlotte Symphony Concertmaster, Calin Lupanu joined the CSO family in 2003, and his wife and CSO Second Violinist, Monica Boboc, in 2004. Though Monica was offered a year-long violin section appointment in 2003 by then music director, Christof Perrick, she declined, preferring to audition “behind the screen” for the orchestra. The following year in 2004, she did win that “behind the screen” audition and soon joined Calin here in Charlotte, moving from Charleston, WV, where they both had played with the West Virginia Symphony.
Music is in Calin’s blood; his mother spent her more than thirty year career as principal harpist in the Bucharest Philharmonic, and his grandfather was a university music professor, author, and the music director of the Cluj Opera House. Monica cites her pragmatic family as the reason she is “the first and most likely the last one in my family to be a musician.”
They are both the products of a Romanian Communist government education. Monica says, “Our country put a lot of money into both of us, but particularly into me because my whole education was paid for. And it was very expensive to pay for my education because for years, I was living in a dorm and eating their food. Everything was provided by the state...everything."
Pressure was high for these budding young musicians. Calin relates that they learned competition very early in their lives. He recalls that the year he went to university, “for the whole country, there were only fourteen (openings for freshman students) for violin.”
All Romanian students go through a series of biennial tests which identify and place them into areas of study for which they show an aptitude. Calin likens it to a pyramid, in which students deemed worthy in music will rise to the top of the pyramid, while others will be funneled into other career paths. Students who demonstrate the necessary musical ability to pursue music must study in one of the three Romanian cities with music conservatories.
Since Calin lived in Bucharest with his family, he was able to study at the conservatory there while living at home. But some students must leave home at an early age in order to pursue a music education. Monica was one of those students. Since she did not live near one of the conservatories, she had to move to Bucharest to study music as a young girl. Monica recalls, “I left my parents’ house and began living in a dorm in 6th grade. It was hard on me and everybody in my family for me to be away from home at such a young age, but looking back, it was also a great chance for me.” Despite her youth, Monica was able to maintain her focus while some other students “got kind of lost along the way.” She credits her (and Calin’s) violin teacher for keeping her on track, saying, “Our teacher was like a father to us.”
Because they attended the same school and studied with the same violin teacher, Calin and Monica have known each other since they were teenagers. Calin chuckles and remembers, “I tried to date her for long time, but she just wouldn’t…it took about five or six years!” Calin persisted, and Monica accepted, and they began dating in college and went on to be married in 2001.
Though they both are grateful to have received their educations through the sponsorship of the Communist government, Calin and Monica recall that “the system”, as they both call it, was also responsible for limited access to electricity, hot water, and food. Calin remembers, “It is 6:00 p.m., it is dark outside, and they take the electricity.” Monica adds, “We practiced and did our homework by candlelight."
Though their 12 year-old son, Matei, lives a very different childhood than that of Calin and Monica, he does play the violin. Monica says, “We are not encouraging him to do it professionally. Two in the family, that’s enough! But at the same time, we really want him to do music because it helps with everything else.” Matei also speaks three languages; English, German, and Romanian.
Their shared love of chamber music brought them to the US to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Institute of Chamber Music, a prestigious and highly specialized graduate music program dedicated to providing professional training experiences in the performance of chamber music. In 1995, they left their orchestra jobs in Romania and came to the US with their Romanian string quartet and a few hundred dollars cash to study chamber music with the Fine Arts String Quartet, who were on faculty at the UW-M Institute of Chamber Music.
Though they were both trained to be soloists, Monica says their passion for chamber music is incurable, “like getting a virus…you will just never be the same. We just cannot live without it.” And Calin emphasizes that he “could not navigate as concertmaster without playing chamber music.”
In 2016, they began a chamber music project they call Chamber Music 4 All. Monica says, “We decided that we needed to…put our time and resources where our heart is.” Their varied series of chamber music performances aims to “inspire, educate, and build a sense of community through chamber music.”
Calin and Monica believe strongly in the importance of investing in culture and education. “These should not be an ‘if’.” says Monica. And Calin agrees: “For this kind of investment, you may not get money back, but you will get a better way of life.”
When asked about their favorite thing about Charlotte, Monica laughs and says, "the weather ten months of the year!" And then goes on, “Charlotte is our life…the Charlotte Symphony is our life, and we love our life here."
Image by CSO Bassist Jeff Ferdon
by Jeremy Lamb
Winning an audition for the CSO requires dedication and focus on nothing but music for a long, long time. But what happens after you've won? Preparing the music for each week's programs is challenging and rewarding, but nothing is quite as intense as those years of lessons, practice, and auditions. So we each find our own fulfillment outside of orchestral life – many through raising a family, teaching like crazy, and getting involved in social and political causes, like advancing animal rights. Most find it through a combination of these. And some, just some, appear to find that fulfillment only through these methods, but actually have entire lives hidden beneath the surface, like an abalone pearl embedded in a prism of infinite light... under the Pacific Ocean in the Mariana Trench.
Our beloved violist, Ning Zhao, appears to have found that post-audition fulfillment with family, teaching, and community involvement. If you haven't met him, he's a tall, confident, easy going, and slightly reserved man who prefers to be silly rather than serious. He also welcomes humor that arises from his accent (humor that intensifies to hilarity when playing Cards Against Humanity). But clues kept emerging, one at a time, that led me to suspect there was much hidden beneath the surface, and made me want to do a piece on his secret life.
First, he drives to rehearsals in a Jaguar, something rather unusual for an orchestral musician. Hollywood background, perhaps? Second, it came through the gossip grapevine that he sold off his portion of a restaurant. This stuff is getting serious! Lastly, there was the fact that he couldn't rehearse for a gig one evening because he had an acting part in a commercial. So it became official: Ning has secrets. I sat down with him over lunch, microphone in hand, filled both with excitement and a little anxiety that I would unintentionally discover an underground meth lab.
When Ning left China for college in the US, his parents effectively threw him into the deep end. "You figure it out," his Dad told him after giving him only one semester's tuition. He attended the Cleveland Institute of Music, and although he was a strong violist with a good chance of winning an orchestral position, he hedged his bets: he and a close friend opened a Chinese-Japanese restaurant in Cleveland with the intent of making it his full-time job if his musical aspirations didn't pan out. I asked him how he found money to invest. He bought in with "sweat money", as he calls it. All in all, he poured five years into the restaurant, using the job not just as an investment but as a way to support himself through college. After winning his job in the CSO, he transferred his portion of ownership over to his friend. The restaurant hasn't been doing as well since he left, which makes him sad, but he doesn't miss it. "Restaurants are really tough business," he recalls. "You have to make people feel like they're part of something special."
Once in Charlotte, Ning moved on to something else, this time for personal development rather than financial stability. It began fortuitously. He met a TV and modeling agent at a party who happened to be looking to "diversify" his film shoots. He called the agent a while later — but at the perfect time — because the agent happened to need him as an extra in a Food Lion commercial the very next day. "I was a young father driving around, picking up groceries", he said, "but mostly it was just standing around waiting for my time on the set." In truth it was a fairly mundane experience, but it was the opening of a new chapter. I then asked Ning a question only an acting newbie would think of: "Did you like Food Lion before or after the shoot?" "Oh! Uh...no comment,” he stammered.
Five or six commercials later, that same agent asked if he'd be willing to start taking acting lessons in order to make himself available for bigger roles. He agreed, hiring a private tutor in addition to taking the recommended group classes. He spent months memorizing scripts to build material for casting agents (he's proud of his ability to reenact Al Pacino’s part in a scene from Devil's Advocate), which is the first step to getting auditions. His break came on the set of You Are Here, directed by Matthew Weiner, starring Owen Wilson. Ning was originally supposed to be an extra on a golf course with Wilson, but one day on the set, Weiner walked up to Ning to inquire if he spoke Chinese. He said he did, and that's all it took to earn an impromptu speaking role with Owen Wilson. He describes the scene and his part in it: "Right before teeing off, Owen’s character turns to ask me if I want drugs, so I turned to my friends and say my line [in Mandarin], 'He's so #%&@! up. He's up to no good'. I was practically cussing [Wilson] off in Chinese. At the end, Matthew Weiner comes up to me and says, 'Charles, you are really good — really funny!'. Then he set up the microphone in the studio and I recorded all these conversations. I was a 'featured principal', so I was eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild and now I get royalties for the movie." "Charles" is part of Ning's full name and the name he has always used while on set. Unfortunately, the entire golf course scene was cut during the final editing of the movie, but he still receives royalties.
Since then, he has played larger roles in countless commercial shoots, and even acted the part of an assassin in the sci-fi movie Headsome. "I had to point a gun at a guy five feet away and pull the trigger. You feel the fragments flying everywhere. As soon as you pull the trigger, the blood is over there... it spit it out. And this police officer is on the set..." Ning trails off, laughing awkwardly. He said he asked the director if he could point the gun a little away from the actor's head because it just made him too uncomfortable, to which the director consented. "I hadn't shot a gun for the longest time," Ning said to me. At one point he asked the special effects director what was in the blood. "It's just ketchup," he said.
Throughout the interview, Ning mentioned numerous times what a boost the acting classes gave to his self-confidence. Before, he says, "I was so shy all the time. There is no way you see the Ning today. Most people put themselves into a box and are so afraid to move anything, afraid of people judging you, afraid to express yourself." However, being in a room with other students, he says, all of whom feel equally out of their element, is a wonderful way to gain confidence. "You present yourself the way you want to present, and whether people like you or not is up to them. It's very empowering."
Finally, I asked him to tell me the story behind the Jaguar. "That's a secret," he told me.
Paws for Applause
A Glimpse into the Gigging World
by Sarah Markle
Ever wonder who played that stately rendition of Pachelbel's Canon at the last wedding you attended? Or who warmed up that boring office party with a jazzy Nutcracker arrangement? Chances are good it was a group of musicians from your Charlotte Symphony! Many of our string players provide music for weddings, parties and receptions around the city every weekend, and some have been at it for over thirty years.
The gig world can be drastically different from a symphony musician's "day job" onstage, but certainly no less rewarding. Jane Hart Brendle, first violinist of the trio Carolina Strings, enjoys the opportunity to take her talents off the stage and into the community: "We love the variety of locations and special celebrations for which we are providing the music. I also enjoy creating custom arrangements of music for our group." The varying venues and environments can be a far cry from our comfortable homes at Belk or Knight Theater, but that's often part of the fun. Jane and her colleague, cellist Susan Davis, recall a particularly memorable Christmas Eve gig during an ice storm, in which a stressful situation involving a sudden power outage turned unexpectedly magical: "There was no power at all in the church and the pipe organ would not work. Les (the organist) was pulling and pressing buttons and pedals for a few seconds. Then he just looked at us and said, 'You've got to carry on' or something like that....We played by the candle light from the choir's candles, choosing music from our collection of quartet Christmas music, which we happened to bring with us 'just in case', not expecting that we would actually need it..."
Longtime gig musicians will agree that "expect the unexpected" is probably the most accurate way to describe the job. As orchestral players, we're all trained to respond quickly to new information, but in chamber music there's no conductor running the show. When stressful or unanticipated situations arise, as they do more often than not, it's up to the musicians to be flexible and react in the moment. "Adjustments are made constantly to take into account all unknown factors," says Jane, "including special surprises like a bumblebee buzzing around the bride's dress, a wedding director making changes that weren't discussed, an impending storm with wind gusts blowing our music off the stands (while we keep playing from memory...), watching as guests and parents encourage a young flower girl who just realized she's the center of attention to finish her walk down the aisle... Funny and strange things are a part of what's expected at most every gig!"
Weddings in particular require a great deal of flexibility and sometimes a need to improvise, due to their many moving parts - rarely do things go exactly as planned! Sakira Harley, founder and first violinist of Charlotte Strings, has played with her group at several high profile events over the years, including the Democratic National Convention, and at weddings for family members of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Jordan. She describes a funny (well, funny NOW) wedding gig story in which their second violinist Carlos Tarazona saved the day with his improvisational skills: "I accidentally packed two first violin books for a wedding, so Carlos had to harmonize the entire time. And for whatever reason - usually at weddings people are talking, but this time people were so serious - it was like a freaking recital. So of course you have to keep a straight face, but he basically had to harmonize for an entire hour and a half. He did great."
Emily Chatham, founder and first violinist of Carolina Chamber Players, has been playing gigs in Charlotte with her group since 1985, and still gets a kick out of some of the more adventurous wedding choices. "It's always cute, even though it doesn't always go well, when someone has their dog being the bearer of the rings." Emily has also seen the duties of ring-bearer carried out by a pot-bellied pig. Her favorite part of the job? "Connecting with people in either happy times, like a wedding, and not so happy times, like a funeral - I've just hoped we could provide some comfort to people who are there, maybe spark some memories..." After over thirty years in the business, Emily and her colleagues have dealt with a wide variety of clients, in an equally wide variety of circumstances: "I have found that major life events can bring all sorts of stuff to the surface, whether it's good, or really really bad. The majority of people I deal with are lovely. But it seems like about once a decade, I get a bride that we label the 'Bride of Satan', who makes me want to quit the profession altogether." (Editor's note: Having played alongside Emily at many of these gigs over the last few years, I'd say that the sense of humor she retains around said circumstances makes her a joy to work with, even when Satanic brides may strike.) "Still", she maintains, "I really love what I do."
As CSO musicians, orchestral playing will always hold a special place in our hearts. But for many of us, especially these talented and entrepreneurial colleagues, the gig world offers an outlet for further musical expression, no less important than what you see onstage at the symphony. It's a place where we can hone other skills - improvisation, music arrangement, quick thinking, olympic-level multitasking - and, of course, further connect with our community and our audiences. So next time you hear chamber music wafting over from some corner of an event, come say hello - you may find a few familiar faces!
CSO Violinist Dima Dimitrova and her husband Christopher Davis welcomed Olivia Kalina Davis, born on July 14th, 2018 at 3:25am, weighing 6lbs and 14oz.
Here, There, Elsewhere:
Musicians of the Charlotte Symphony Performing Beyond the CSO Stage
by Janis Nilsen
Providence Chamber Music Series
Free and open to the public
Lori Tiberio, Artistic Director
Music of the United States, Sunday, May 12, 2019, 7:00 p.m. in the sanctuary of Providence United Methodist Church, 2810 Providence Road
String Quartet in G Major (1929) by Florence Price will be performed by The Madison Park String Quartet
Kari Giles and Jenny Topilow, violin, Kirsten Swanson, viola and Mira Frisch, cello
Concerto for Viola by Leonard Mark Lewis
Ben Geller, viola, Leonard Mark Lewis, piano
Chamber Music 4 All
After their successful debut at Gardner Webb University in March, the quartet performs Mendelssohn String Quartet op. 80 and Beethoven String Quartet op. 59 no. 3 twice more in the region.
Calin Lupanu and Monica Boboc, violin, Ben Geller, viola, and Marlene Ballena, cello
Upcoming dates are:
Sunday, April 28, 2019, 2:30 pm, Lancaster SC at the Cultural Center, 307 W. Gay Street, Lancaster, SC 29720 Details:
Sunday, June 2, 2019, 3 pm, Central Piedmont Community College, Tate Recital Hall in the Overcash Performing Arts Center, 1206 Elizabeth Avenue, Charlotte, NC 28204 Details and tickets:
The Bechtler Ensemble presents Schubert’s String Quintet on May 5, 2019, at 6 pm. The concert takes place in the Fourth Floor Gallery at The Bechtler Museum, 420 South Tryon Street. CSO violinist Tatiana Karpova and violist Ben Geller join former CSO cellist Tanja Bechtler, violinist Peter DeVries and cellist Grace Anderson.
Details can be found at
Serving our community in a role different from our musical performances, a number of Charlotte Symphony musicians will participate in the Sarcoma Stomp 5K Run and 3K Walk on Saturday, April 27th, 2019, 8 am at Christ Lutheran Church, 4519 Providence Road. We race to honor the memory of long-time CSO violinist Evelyn Blalock, who was taken from us by this disease in 2014. “Team Evelyn” welcomes you to join us on race day, or as a contributor.
Hear CSO Principal Violist Ben Geller this summer in Faculty Chamber Music Recitals at Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, NC - June 24 and 25, July 1, 2, 9, 22 and 23. Details at