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From Soviet Romania To Front Stage: Charlotte Symphony's Concertmaster

Briana Duggan

The Charlotte Symphony begins its summer outdoor concert series this weekend. And before the conductor steps onto Symphony Park stage, steps the orchestra’s highest ranked member: the concertmaster. He takes the seat to the left of the conductor.

For the last ten years, one man has occupied that chair: Romanian born violinist, Calin Lupanu. WFAE's Briana Duggan met with the concertmaster and discovered that the route to that chair has been a tumultuous one.

Calin Lupanu canceled our first meeting. I was to meet him at his house, but a thunderstorm the night before knocked out his power. "It reminds me of my childhood in Soviet Romania," he said, laughing. We rescheduled for the next morning.

Lupanu is the Charlotte Symphony's concertmaster, the highest ranked member of the orchestra. He serves as a link between the conductor and the orchestra, solves some technical problems, and is face of the orchestra. If you have been to a  Charlotte Symphony concert over the past 10 years, you've probably applauded Lupanu before anyone else. He's walks on stage before the conductor, tunes the orchestra and then takes his seat to the immediate left of the conductor.

Lupanu lives in a leafy east Charlotte neighborhood with his wife, also a Symphony musician, and their five year old son. He's is a large man, olive skinned with thick black hair. Within seconds of me stepping into his home, he offers me cup of coffee, swiftly puts the kettle on to boil, and then sits down at the kitchen table as it brews.

“We were talking about the power outage the other day,” he started, “I grew up for instance 8pm to 10pm no electricity whatsoever because the state was trying to save money. You sit down at the candlelight so you try to do your homework, practice violin.”

Lupanu began playing violin as a child, growing up in Romania in the 1970's. Besides some propaganda, Lupanu says that the education was very good. It was free, and that included music lessons, as well. Classical music is big in Romania, and growing up, he says all of his friends played instruments. 

As a teenager, Lupanu would sneak into the Bucharest Philharmonic on Saturday nights, where his mom was the principal harpist.“During those times, [there was] no heat, no hot water and the soloists and orchestra musicians they would keep their coats on, their hats on. They had gloves with fingers cut so they can play, and during the orchestra introduction the soloists would warm up to the heater next to the pianos.” 

It was a difficult time, but Lupanu says that in the midst of all that they didn’t have, his country found refuge in what they did have: culture. “Funny enough the theaters, the concert halls, the opera houses were full, were packed for concerts and it was a way of coming out against the oppression," he says. "You need a place where you felt free to listen to beautiful music.”

The last Romanian communist leader, NicolaeCeusescu, was overthrown in 1989, captured while attempting to flee the country and quickly executed.

“I was 22. I was in my first years in the music conservatory and I remember the president of the conservatory asked us to guard the conservatory against this, whatever.” So Lupanu volunteered, and was assigned a night shift with his friend, a bassoon player. “We put a chair against every single lock so the doors wouldn’t open. We had an axe and a bat and we were looking outside the window and we see the tracers and the bullets going above us, above the conservatory building.”

Then, the two of them heard a loud noise. They called for backup. Soon, a group arrived to help, also armed with bats and axes as weapons, as guns were prohibited in communist Romania. But rather than finding an intruder, they found that one of the chairs they had used to reinforce the door had fallen down. In hindsight, the conservatory was not the first place on the list. The radio station, the airport, the old soviet headquarters, those places were in danger. “People couldn’t care less about the conservatory,” Lupanu says smiling. "But of course, we were revolutionary! We had to go and guard the conservatory.”

Five years later, Lupanu finished up his studies in Bucharest. He and his wife moved to the United States to study and tour with their string quartet. But constant travel eventually wore the couple down. “It’s difficult to have a family that way,” he says. “And it was a decision we took and said, ‘ok, now it’s time to have a family.’”

Today, Lupanu works with the Charlotte Symphony, teaches private lessons, and serves as concertmaster at the Colorado Music Festival every summer. The settled life suits him, he says, and gives him time to spend with his son - as well enjoy a long cup of coffee.

Charlotte Symphony begins the Summer Pops Concert Series at Symphony Park  this Sunday June 9, and continue every Sunday through July 3.

  This story is produced through the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to covering the arts.