In his book ‘Anatomy of an Orchestra,’ Norman Del Mar writes, “A good timpanist really does set the standard of the whole orchestra.”
Such is the impact of our dear friend Sherwood Mobley, who was only 59 when overcome by a sudden, brief illness earlier this year. Though his passing on Feb. 26, 2016 marks the mournful departure of an exceedingly good timpanist, the standards Mobley set for both the GSO and the broader discipline of orchestral music will endure as his resounding legacy.
During the 23 years he spent situated behind his battery of timpani, as a GSO principal Mobley was an unforgettable performance fixture and audience favorite. Appropriately, his role was central to the percussion family; the timpani’s fundamental purpose in orchestral play is to support rhythm, melody and harmony. Even when anchored in his habitual spot onstage toward the back of the orchestra, Sherwood’s commanding influence rolled and vibrated its way through stormy dramatics or the vastness of oceans; it rumbled and shimmered as he expertly ushered all who listened through the majesty of symphonic swells, the intrigue of deepness and darkness, or the bright and incisive forewarning of sound set to burst open. Sherwood moved people; in certain repertoire, he was the heartbeat of the universe.
Whether the score — or any other task at hand — required seriousness or joy, Mobley readily approached everyone and everything with immense soul. It was his special gift to share; his spirit so undeniably lyrical it could never be contained, but instead its inherent, overflowing energy was channeled through the timpani’s powerful intervals of attack and resonance. Much like his instruments’ lasting impression, Sherwood’s booming laugh echoes in the memories of most people who speak to his contributions. As does his familiar baritone voice, which so often carried warmly throughout the Peace Center’s lobby as he welcomed symphony patrons upon arrival; a customary act always punctuated with his firm handshake and wide smile. In this community, there were no strangers.
His role with the GSO evolved to include a staff position alongside his musical duties when he became Director of Operations and Personnel in 1996. He was able to expand his actions of support for the other musicians and the organization in new ways, such as setting a new precedent for higher pay. The first day the South Carolina Governors’ School for the Arts and Humanities opened its doors, he began his 15-year tenure there as an educator of gifted high-school musicians; a cherished position he left only because of his appointment as the GSO’s Executive Director. Even prior to administrative roles, he had always extensively proven himself to be an advocate of music education and performance.
“He had a vision for the orchestra. Not just the impact on the symphony – but where it would be five, 10 and 15 years down the road. He had a vision; goals of where we should go. He sought to create a competitive wage for the musicians, to expand the number and the types of concerts that we offer so we could reach out to a broader audience spectrum. He wanted broader appeals to different demographics – and to try to get an increase in younger listeners, which is a problem with all orchestras,” said Phil Elkins, a co-principal trumpet for GSO who also assumed the operations and personnel position after Sherwood’s promotion. The two had known each other since their symphony days of the late 1980s in Georgia.
“As far as his role in the community, the thing about Sherwood was he never knew a stranger. Whether you knew him for 15 minutes or 15 years, he left an indelible and wonderful impression. He could make your love for the orchestra contagious. He was a natural ambassador, I think, when it came to him working with the community,” said GSO Marketing Director Todd Weir.
“He wanted everyone to have the opportunity to experience the orchestra. Regardless of race, creed, color, financial needs – he wanted everyone to have that opportunity. He was a huge proponent of our educational programs, especially the community ticket program Sunday Funday, and exposing children and individuals that maybe have never had the opportunity to experience live, symphonic music. That is a legacy that will live on.”
Mobley was appointed as the interim ED Sept. 11, 2014. By December, following a nationwide search, he was chosen as the GSO’s new ED from among dozens of applicants. News of his promotion spread widely throughout orchestral circles all over the U.S. He became one of only a few black American orchestra executives in the top administrative position.
“As Executive Director and a person of color, I am interested in expanding the audience, period,” he told The Greenville News in a 2015 interview. “But secondly, I would love to see more blacks in the audience.” Additionally, he sought a new standard of opportunity for black musicians, also quoted as saying, “I think I was very successful in getting the word out. If you look at the Greenville Symphony, there are more blacks there than in most orchestras.”
Like many Mobley was an advocate for, his journey into professional musicianship was not always independent of his race, but his career was much more a product of the ownership of his path, his definitive choices, his aptitude and graceful perseverance. Born in Samford, FL in 1956, he began playing piano at age 4; it was a “rule” in his household set forth by his mother, a schoolteacher. But it was when he watched the legendary Florida A&M marching band for the first time that he developed a fascination with the drums: a love that would become so great, it would one day outgrow his mortality. That passion is what he has left for the rest of us to pass along in our march onward, led by the beats of his students’ proud mallets.
His mother struck a hard bargain when he expressed his desire to play the drums. She told him if he left his segregated elementary school to attend a predominantly white school — where she thought he could get a better education — she would buy him a Sears and Roebuck snare drum. In fifth grade, he transferred to become one of three black students; it happened to be a school where the music teacher’s husband was a professional percussionist. Sherwood also got that snare drum, which he held onto throughout the years.
Later on he studied to receive his Bachelor’s at the Boston Conservatory, where he met his wife, vocalist Debbie Paden Mobley. Next he got a Master’s at the New England Conservatory, where a teacher attempted to discourage Sherwood from a career of musical performance with warnings of the distinct difficulties and sparse opportunities plaguing minorities. Sherwood, undeterred, informed his wife he was going to find a new percussion teacher.
People say that Sherwood had three great loves: his family, his faith and the GSO. In addition to wife Debbie, Sherwood is survived by his two daughters, Naomi and Sarah Mobley, for whom he was known to cheer uproariously at their basketball games; he also served as a deacon and Sunday School teacher at his church, First Baptist Greenville.
“Whether Sherwood was playing timpani on stage, introducing children throughout the Greenville County School District to the joys of music, or leading the administrative staff in our office, he made a lasting impression on everyone he met, and his loss is deeply felt and mourned by all who knew him,” said Maestro Edvard Tchzivel, who built a genuine friendship with Mobley in the years since the two met in 1991 – Sherwood’s first with the GSO as principal timpanist, and the year the Maestro defected from the Soviet Union. According to GSO members, the two shared “mutual admiration and respect for one another, and they trusted each other implicitly” while in their collaborative leadership roles.
“Sherwood was the consummate professional, the cheerleader, the peacemaker. He did it all here. He was just an easygoing guy that, along with Edvard, was the heart and soul of the organization,” Weir recounts. “You couldn’t help but get excited about the orchestra just working with him. His love for music was truly contagious. We were all privileged to work with such an amazing human being.”