Remembering Sherwood Mobley, executive director of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra

Remembering Sherwood Mobley, executive director of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra

From the Greenville News

Article by Paul Hyde, photo (above) by Heidi Heilbrunn

Sherwood Mobley, the executive director and longtime former timpanist with the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, died early Friday morning, the orchestra said.

Mobley’s wife, Debbie Paden Mobley, posted a message on

“Sherwood passed away peacefully in his sleep at 2:15 a.m. February 26th,” she wrote. “Thank you for your prayers.”

Sherwood Mobley, 59, had been battling an acute infection and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, a blood cancer.

“This is a great loss for our orchestra, our community, and for myself personally,” said Edvard Tchivzhel, conductor and music director of the Greenville Symphony.

“I prayed last night that he might get better,” Tchivzhel said. “This all happened so fast. It was so unjust.”

Mobley’s appointment in 2014 as executive director of the orchestra gained considerable notice nationwide because he was one of the few African Americans serving in the top administrative position in an American symphony orchestra.

Mobley had been completely healthy up until only a few months ago, a spokesman with the Greenville Symphony said.

“Sherwood was an extremely talented person, a great musician, a great personality, extremely energetic and optimistic,” said Tchivzhel, who first met Mobley in 1991, shortly after Tchivzhel defected from the Soviet Union.

“He was the soul of our orchestra, a family man and a person with an incredibly friendly character,” Tchivzhel added. “Everybody loved him.”

A Greenville Symphony spokesman said the orchestra would pay tribute to Mobley with an added work in tonight’s chamber music concert at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre. The orchestra will also honor him with a moment of silence, and dedicate a future program to Mobley.

Mobley’s association with the orchestra extends back to 1991, when he became principal timpanist with the ensemble. In 1996, he was appointed director of operations and personnel. He served in that position until becoming executive director in 2014.

The orchestra’s musicians on Friday praised Mobley for both his musicianship and kindness.

“Sherwood and I shared so much during our years together in the GSO,” said principal flute player Caroline Ulrich.

“We made music together under different conductors, explored chamber music, watched our families grow, taught together at the S.C. Governor’s School and laughed a whole lot,” she said. “There are few people in the world who possess his level of talent, compassion, intelligence and humor. There is a hole in my heart.”

Ulrich is the featured soloist in this weekend’s chamber music concert at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre.

“Of course, I dedicate my performances this weekend to him and his family,” she said.

Christina Cornell, a French horn player with the orchestra who also worked in the administrative office with Mobley, said, “He was someone I always looked up to, as I’m sure all did who met him. He had a wonderful laugh and was always a joy to be around. Just the best person to know.”

Joe Hughes, the orchestra’s principal trombonist who first met Mobley in 1992, said he recognized the timpanist as “the real deal, a phenomenal musician and professional on every level.

“That was the start of a cherished friendship,” Hughes said. “He was a man who took a sincere interest in people and a man of integrity and honor. Sherwood always had beautiful pictures of his family to show and any mention of them made Sherwood glow with love and peace. The GSO and Greenville community have lost a huge advocate for music education and performance. We love and miss Sherwood immensely and are here for his family.”

Mobley is survived by his wife, Debbie Paden Mobley, and his two daughters, Naomi and Sarah Mobley, who all reside in Simpsonville.

Reaching out

Mobley was appointed interim executive director of the orchestra on Sept. 11, 2014. Later, he was chosen from among dozens of applicants nationwide to serve as executive director, overseeing a staff of 10, a regular orchestra roster of up to 100 and an annual budget of $2.2 million.

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.

Reaching out to young people and minority communities was a top priority for Mobley.

“As executive director and a person of color, I’m very interested in expanding the audience, period,” Mobley told The Greenville News in a January, 2015 interview.

“But secondly, I’d love to see more blacks in the audience,” Mobley added.

Mobley pursued new educational initiatives and 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.

Mobley also sought to provide opportunities for minority musicians.

Nationwide, only 5 percent of orchestral 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 in the 2015 interview. “I think I was very successful in getting the word out. If you look at the Greenville Symphony, there are blacks there than in most orchestras.”

Music was everything

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 in 2015. “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 last year. “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 became close to his fellow musicians and conductor Tchivzhel.

“I’ve developed a strong relationship not only with our musicians but with Edvard,” Mobley said in 2015. “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.”

When he became executive director in 2014, Mobley decided he wouldn’t be able to continue as the orchestra’s timpanist as well. 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 in 2015. “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.”

Mobley continued to perform occasionally in chamber music concerts or with the Greenville Symphony’s jazz trio.

“Sherwood was a well-known and much loved member of the Greenville Symphony by its musicians, supporters and staff, as well as the Upstate community,” said Greenville Symphony Association president Lee Dixon in a statement. “He was a wonderful man and a gift to all of us. On behalf of the board of directors, we would like to convey our deepest condolences to Sherwood’s family.”