Sunday, March 22, 2015

Honoring John Crouch, winemaker and musician, Part 2


 (Here's the second part of our guest blog from Doug Miller.)

Honoring John Crouch, musician

At the end of my first guest blog I had learned from John Crouch’s friend Ray Hearne that another of their mutual friends might have more manuscripts of John’s compositions.   Well, that tidbit of information has turned into a fascinating flood of new revelations about our good friend John.

John working the barrels
The “mutual friend” turned out to be Tony Norris from Baltimore, who Ray reported back to us did indeed have at least one full box of manuscripts.   Being in sleuth mode, I decided to see if I could learn anything about this friend of John’s before contacting him.    And I soon learned that John’s friend’s life paralleled his in two significant ways:  Tony is a very successful musician---a classical guitar performer and teacher;   and Tony and his wife Laura launched into a creative business project at about the same time John and Tim founded Allegro:   they created the now-famous restaurant Bertha’s in the Fells Point area of Baltimore.  (notorious for its bumper stickers “Eat Bertha’s Mussels”)

About the time we finally made the Tony Norris connection by email everyone at Allegro was fully into harvest season mode, about which Carl has recently written.   So it was only last Friday, a week before Christmas, that Carl and I were finally able to trek down to Baltimore to meet Tony and Laura, learn more about John, and bring back the two boxes of John’s scores for which Tony had generously offered to allow us to become custodians.

That trip would have been a highlight event for us, even if it had only consisted of being hosted in Tony and Laura’s historic restored home a block from the waterfront and at Bertha’s, their successful creation.   They are iconic beings, fascinating beyond description.

But between our hours of conversation with them (accompanied by Bertha’s food and Allegro’s wines) and the boxes of materials we now have in hand here on the estate, I have come to have a new appreciation for John Crouch, musician.

John and Tim grew up in Washington D.C., and it was there that Tony came to know John.     I mentioned in the first blog that we had always heard that John was “an oboist.”    What we learned from Tony last week and from a bio I found among the materials in the boxes is that John was apparently a really good oboist.    Tony described him as that when they first met as fellow musicians in the Washington, DC area when they were in their early 20s—not just “an oboist” but “a really good oboist.”    
John prepping lugs for pressing

Furthermore, what I’ve learned from the bio is that during his early years in DC John learned to play multiple instruments—cello, string bass, tuba, oboe, flute, clarinet, and sax, and then "majored in music at Boston University, studying oboe with Ralph Gomberg.”  (italics mine)   Well, since I spent several decades in the orchestral world I am well aware that Ralph Gomberg was the principal oboist for nearly 4 decades with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.   (His brother Harold held the same chair in the NY Philharmonic).   

So as a young man John was an oboist who was talented enough to become a Gomberg student at BU, and then to impress a fellow musician back in DC (Tony) as an outstanding oboist.   None of us at Allegro had any idea that John was that talented and skilled as a performer.   And of all the orchestral instruments, oboe is widely regarded as one of the most challenging (and also most expressive.)

Then there’s John the composer.   Here’s an incredible brief excerpt from that same bio: 
 “The Exxon Corporation placed in a time capsule to be opened in 2076 a tape of John’s Theme and Variations for Woodwind Quintet. “  
That, my friends, is that same Theme and Variations whose first page of manuscript sits on the front of Allegro’s 2012 Bridge!! 

Tim (left) and John in the tasting room
Perhaps, if Carl will have me, I’ll someday submit another blog about John the composer, once I’ve had a chance to spend time with the two boxes of scores Tony passed on to us.    But I’ll close out this one with a family aside, growing out of our encounter with Tony and Laura Norris.   

Our son David earned his bachelor’s degree at the Eastman School of Music as a horn major, though he is also a violinist and, like John, has learned to play many other instruments.   For the past half dozen years he has become a very serious mandolin player.   He and a colleague have performed extensively on the east coast as a guitar/mandolin duo (and also released two CDs as Prester John), and he is part of a select mandolin ensemble, (New American Mandolin Ensemble—NAME) which this summer represented the United States at a major conference in Germany.

Well guess what?   Tony and Laura Norris are two of the four members of the Baltimore Mandolin Quartet, and both are active in the Baltimore Mandolin Orchestra.  Laura has founded a significant “Mando Kids” program for young people which is becoming utilized throughout the country----David was well aware of it.   And the three of them, without knowing each other, have performed together in at least two large ensembles at national conventions.

Talk about multiple interwoven connections!    John must be smiling!