A bombshell for local woodwind aficionados and for regular listeners of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: Patrick McFarland, 71, the orchestra’s principal English horn player, resigned yesterday after 47 years of service. It was a sudden announcement that surprised his colleagues.
Asked about his decision, McFarland replied, “There were several reasons, not the least was burnout. I don’t want to be hanging around when I’m not playing my best, and I wanted to go out ahead of it, before I lost it.”
Technically, he is now on medical disability, but he says he has no plans to return to the Symphony Hall stage. “It’s just plain time to hang it up,” he said.
The news comes soon after the ASO and its music director, Robert Spano, initiated formal charges — which might lead to termination — against two other ASO members, associate principal trombonist Stephen Wilson and section violinist Alice Oglesby. McFarland told me that his timing was “totally unrelated” and that he is “not in any hot water like those two you mentioned. This was entirely my decision.”
McFarland joined the ASO as principal oboist, a post he held from 1964 until ’68, when he switched to English horn, a mellow, nasal, alto-voiced member of the oboe family. He is featured on countless ASO recordings, with lengthy solo parts in Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela” and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8, both conducted by Yoel Levi.
“That Shostakovich is the mother of all English horn solos and we did it in just two takes,” he said. “I suppose I should be very proud of that.”
Since 1971, McFarland has been an importer and dealer of European oboes, with a business called the McFarland Double Reed Shop.
“The plan was for the double reed shop to be my retirement, but it had been dormant for a while. That’s what I’ll bring back up and make my full-time activity.” In recent summers, he has volunteered as a “gentleman host” on the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. He once remarked, “My role is to go up to single ladies and ask them to dance. The most common thing they tell me is, ‘This is the first time I’ve danced since my husband passed away.’ It’s terribly bittersweet.”
In addition to his oboe-importing business, he will spend more time dancing on ships, among other pleasures. “Since I resigned yesterday, I can already feel my blood pressure dropping. It was a stressful 47 years.”
Photo above: The ASO oboe section at a rehearsal in Carnegie Hall.