Music lovers gather under the stars this weekend for the return of one of the area's most popular cultural events: the Charlotte Symphony's summer series of free outdoor concerts. The opening concerts will spotlight a player who usually stays stashed away near the rear of the stage, first-chair French horn player Frank Portone. When Portone steps out front, he'll leave his horn behind and show off his other musical gift – as a tenor.
Portone will sing opera and Broadway favorites, including numbers from “Turandot” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” A native of Philadelphia, he has played in the Charlotte Symphony since 1980. He discusses his twin talents with the Observer. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
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Q. Do you ever play and sing at the same concert?
If I'm only singing one or two things, I may. But definitely not when I'm singing five (as he is this time). I found that there are things I have to do to sing my best, and they don't always jibe with playing my best. For one thing, playing puts a little strain on my throat, and that can make the singing a little hoarse. Plus, allergy medicine – because this time of year, there are bad allergies – they're great for your voice, but they dry your chops out a little bit.
Q. When did you start singing?
I think it was in the fourth grade. We happened to have a teacher who loved opera, and she was good friends with the district music supervisor, who started the Philadelphia Boys Choir. Between the two of them, they got us doing opera scenes. And (the music supervisor) liked my voice and wanted me to come into the boys' choir. In junior high school … I got a scholarship to the Settlement Music School (well-known beyond the city), taking voice lessons. … And in the seventh grade, I started playing the horn as well. I was going to the Settlement School for that, too.
Q. If you were already singing, why did you take up the French horn?
The band director came around to all the classes looking for people who wanted to start playing an instrument. If you wanted to play an instrument, you got out of class right then and there to go sign some papers. I thought, “This is a good opportunity to get out of class for 10 minutes.” … He gave me a cello. So I played the cello for a few months, but I brought it back. I loved the sound of it, but I didn't like hauling it around…. He had just gotten a brand-new French horn. The kid who was playing first horn in the band got braces and switched to the trombone. So (the band) needed a new horn player. He showed me this shiny new instrument, and I was hooked.
Q. What made you decide to put the horn first?
I loved singing. But I really loved playing the horn. … It's such a glorious sound. You can play so soft. So loud.
Q. Is there anything special to you about the music you're singing this weekend?
We picked four songs, and we needed one more. Finally my wife suggested “Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera.” I've been kind of ducking that song, because I've talked to tenors who have done it in pops concerts, and they're always telling me how hard it is. But my wife suggested it. And our teenage daughter, Teresa, was standing right there. Unbeknownst to me, she absolutely loves that song. She said, “Oh, Daddy, if you sing that song, I'll love you forever.” What's a daddy to do? Daddy's going to sing “Music of the Night.”