As Greenville Symphony musicians tune up for the orchestra’s Masterworks concert tonight (Jan. 23), longtime patrons will notice that Sherwood Mobley is not standing behind the timpani.
It’s a place he occupied on the Peace Center stage for 23 years.
Instead, Mobley will be greeting patrons in the lobby as the orchestra’s new executive director.
“I’m thrilled to have been given this opportunity,” Mobley said.
Mobley’s recent appointment is gaining considerable notice because he’s one of the few African Americans serving in the top administrative position in an American symphony orchestra.
Minorities have long been underrepresented in all aspects of American orchestras: on the podium, in the orchestra, in the audience and in the administrative offices.
“I applaud the board for its commitment to diversity,” said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, an association of U.S. symphony orchestras.
Mobley, 58, who also was the former director of operations and personnel for the orchestra, was chosen from among dozens of applicants nationwide to serve as executive director. He’ll oversee an office staff of 10, a regular orchestra roster of up to 100 and an annual budget of $2.2 million.
“It’s wonderful that such an accomplished musician and administrator as Sherwood Mobley is rising to the executive ranks,” Rosen said.
The Greenville Symphony is one of the Upstate’s cornerstone arts organizations, with dozens of performances every year at the Peace Center as well as smaller chamber music and children’s concerts throughout the community.
Mobley has served as the Greenville Symphony’s interim director since Sept. 11. Greenville Symphony conductor Edvard Tchivzhel continues to oversee all artistic matters for the orchestra.
For Mobley, reaching out to Greenville’s young people and minority communities is a top priority. The audiences for symphony orchestras nationwide tend to be older and overwhelming white.
“As executive director and a person of color, I’m very interested in expanding the audience, period,” Mobley said.
“But secondly, I’d love to see more blacks in the audience,” Mobley added. “I’m hopeful that in my current position, I’ll be able to implement programs and activities that broaden the audience. African-American churches are a good starting point. I’d like to go to them and say, ‘Can I come to you and talk to you about the Greenville Symphony?’”
Mobley plans to pursue new educational initiatives as well. The orchestra already offers concerts for thousands of young students at the Peace Center, but Mobley would like to bring the full orchestra into the auditoriums of Upstate high schools — an effort, however, that would require significant fund-raising.
“I’d like to reach out to new areas of the community,” Mobley said. “I certainly have a vested interested in that. There are people within 10 miles of the Peace Center who’ve never stepped foot inside the Peace Center, where the Greenville Symphony performs and so many other great arts activities take place.”
In addition, Mobley already has implemented a program called “Sunday Funday,” which allows young children to attend an orchestral performance for free when a parent buys an upper-balcony ticket.
“Many parents are telling us they can’t afford tickets for the entire family,” Mobley said.
The Greenville Symphony faces challenges similar to those of orchestras nationwide: growing and diversifying the classical music audience base.
“Broadening the audience is Topic No. 1 or No. 2 at orchestra conferences,” Mobley said. “We’re trying to build a future audience. We’re grateful for our traditional supporters but they’re getting older and we need to look at ways to bring young people into the concert hall.”
As the orchestra’s director of operations and personnel, Mobley sought to provide opportunities for minority musicians, and he hopes to repeat those efforts in regard to building a diverse audience for classical music.
Nationwide, only 5 percent of orchestra musicians are African American or Latino, and 7 percent of conductors are African American or Latino, according to the League of American Orchestras.
“Because of my color, I know many blacks who are really fine musicians and deserve an opportunity to at least get into the audition process,” Mobley said. “I think I was very successful in getting the word out. If you look at the Greenville Symphony, there are more black faces there than in most orchestras.”
An early start
Mobley keenly understands the importance of introducing young people at an early age to classical music as a way of building a future audience.
Mobley was 3 years old when his father died, leaving his mother to raise Mobley, his three sisters and older brother. In a segregated Sanford, Florida, Mobley might not have found his way to music if not for a mother who introduced him to piano at age 4.
“In that household, everybody had to take piano lessons,” Mobley said, with a laugh. “That was the rule. You couldn’t live there unless you took piano lessons.”
One day, however, the young Mobley saw the Florida A&M band’s legendary drumline — and the young man discovered his calling.
“I was just fascinated by the drums,” Mobley said. “They were flipping the sticks all around and it looked so cool. That was the wow-factor for me, seeing the Florida A&M marching band drumline.”
Mobley’s mother made a deal with him: If he would agree to leave the segregated elementary school he attended for a predominately white school, she would buy him a Sears & Roebuck snare drum. She herself taught at her son’s predominately black school but wanted him to enjoy the better advantages of the predominately white school.
“She was using textbooks that were old and tattered, so she knew there’d be better opportunities at a different school and she wanted me to be a part of that,” Mobley said. “So in fifth grade, I went to a new school where I was one of three blacks. My mother bought me that snare drum. I still have it today.”
At his new school, Mobley met the music teacher’s husband, who was a professionally trained percussionist. He would become Mobley’s first private teacher.
Later, Mobley would play percussion in a high school marching band but he found he really loved performing classics in the concert band.
“I loved the symphonic band, playing the orchestral transcriptions of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich,” Mobley said.
Mobley would later attend the Boston Conservatory, earning a bachelor’s degree in music. He earned a master’s at the New England Conservatory, also in Boston.
Several professional jobs would follow. Mobley served as principal timpanist with the Maracaibo (Venezuela) and Macon (Georgia) symphony orchestras before becoming principal timpanist with the Greenville Symphony in 1991.
Through his long tenure with the orchestra, Mobley has become close with his fellow musicians and conductor Tchivzhel.
“I’ve developed a strong relationship not only with our musicians but with Edvard,” Mobley said. “We understand each other and there’s a great deal of trust there as well. I certainly trust Edvard’s musical instincts and knowledge, and I know I have the orchestra’s confidence and support.”
Mobley became the orchestra’s director of operations and personnel in 1996 — while remaining the orchestra’s timpanist. With his new appointment as executive director, however, Mobley decided that he could not continue to perform in the orchestra.
Even more difficult than resigning from the orchestra was letting go of his teaching duties at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
“I’ve taught at the Governor’s School since the doors opened,” Mobley said. “Stepping away from those activities tugs at my heart more than anything else. It was hard for me to tell my students that I was leaving.”
The Greenville Symphony will be auditioning timpanists for Mobley’s replacement soon. Nancy B. Stanton, a former president of the Greenville Symphony Guild, endowed the timpani chair in Mobley’s honor.
“I’m thrilled that Sherwood is executive director now,” Stanton said. “I’ve watched him over the years assume more and more responsibility. I think it made perfect sense to move him up to that position. He is so well-respected in the community.”
Mobley said he will continue to perform occasionally: chamber music or with the Greenville Symphony jazz trio.
Mobley’s appointment as executive director is being widely applauded.
“He had a strong resume and strong qualifications but also an incredible sense of passion for the Greenvile Symphony and an incredible level of integrity and respect among the community, staff, musicians and key supporters of the Greenville Symphony,” said Bob Nachman, president of the symphony board and head of the seven-member search committee.
Mobley was first hired as the orchestra’s personnel manager when John Warner was president of the board. Warner, who is still a board member, and was a cellist with the orchestra from 1978 to 1985, said he’s pleased to see Mobley take the reins of the organization.
“He’s highly respected and he’s got all the attributes of a good manager,” Warner said. “The staff and musicians really like him. I think he’s a great choice for this position because he’s got almost universal support from all the constituents.”
Robert O’Brien, who serves as the orchestra’s representative on the board, said the musicians are particularly pleased to see the executive director chosen from among their own ranks.
“The musicians are very excited about Sherwood being appointed executive director,” said O’Brien, the orchestra’s assistant principal cellist. “He certainly knows the Greenville Symphony inside and out. He understands all the business aspects of the job but he also has a real artistic understanding of an organization like this. We’ve had some very good executive directors but they haven’t had the artistic knowledge that Sherwood brings to the equation. We don’t see how that can be anything but a positive.”