- March 1, 2023
It will be time once again for John Fullam to stand.
On Feb. 5 at Peace Presbyterian Church in Lakewood Ranch, Fullam will deliver a clarinet solo performance of Weber’s Concertino, Opus 26 during the Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble’s Winter Concert.
However, the sounds that flow from his instrument won’t completely define the person behind the clarinet.
And that’s OK with Fullam, whose career as a heralded musician has changed after a “miraculous” recovery from fourth stage Hodgkin lymphoma.
A Meadows resident since 2017, when the cancer forced him to retire after 25 years with the Buffalo Philharmonic as its lead clarinetist, Fullam is walking a somewhat different path these days. Going through treatment, his wife, Lois, by his side, Fullam emerged, seeing the world in a different light.
“My doctor said when I come through this, that I would be a different person,” he said.
It was a simple, and profound, statement.
“My wife and I are of considerable faith,” Fullam said. “I see another 15 years as a gift. I haven’t finished what I am here to do.”
Certainly, he has been at the top of his profession as a musician. Perhaps his next chapter would involve something more personal.
“I see things more deeply than I used to,” he said. “I will reread a book, spend hours looking at a painting, listen to a recording all day. My appreciation for things is a lot deeper. I value people more in general. Everyone is a gift. It is a lot easier for me to be courteous.”
With his physical strength growing, he started to think about performing again. He had been isolated at home with Lois, knowing that contracting COVID-19 during his cancer treatments would be a death sentence.
Still, though, he was coming out of chemo treatments and he was “starting to get my chops back.”
He missed playing in a band, so on July 4, 2021, he went to hear the Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble play with the Choral Artists of Sarasota at the Sarasota Opera House.
“He came to me after the concert,” said Joe Miller, the founder and conductor of the Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble. “He said, ‘I love this group and I want to be part of it.’
“It’s exciting to have someone with his performance history. Folks look up to him, and he already has offered to do master classes. And his sound is magnificent.”
Fullam said he liked the “above average” talent Miller had assembled and he has since enjoyed the way Miller picks the music for the wind ensemble’s performances.
“Every single person would redo the season schedule to their own liking,” Fullam said. “But if you go high brow, you can lose 85% of the audience, and the other extreme is that it gets tiring playing the same show tunes over and over. Repetition can be the kiss of death. If you play music (the musicians) can’t stand, you won’t have that orchestra very long.”
He said Miller accommodates the interests of everyone in his programs.
At 71, is he ready for a moment in the spotlight?
“I am about 90% back, and I believe I am ready to pick up where I left off,” he said. “But if I was a boxer, I wouldn’t want to go back into the ring.”
Fullam said he isn’t seeking notoriety or glamour.
“You do this for the music,” he said.
While he said audience reactions have been exceptional for Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble performances, each musician needs to have a personal satisfaction from a concert as well.
“I learned that often when I would give a recital, I would be sweating my guts out in preparation, and then I would get this for 10 seconds.”
He put his hands in front of him, politely clapping as if it was required. He laughed a bit.
“‘Can’t you hear me?’
“Then at other times, I would have all but fallen on my face, and I would get a great ovation and I would be asked to do an encore. It is all about who is doing the listening.”
For much of his life, he has tried to be ready for those listening. Growing up in New York, he said he wasn’t very social as a child, choosing to isolate himself with his music.
“Music is 90% solitary,” he said. “There is a price we pay if you want to make music on the level of a Mozart.
“At the heart of everything, I was not so much narrow-minded, as single-minded. You embrace everything else and see it through a different prism.”
He has loved the clarinet for its versatility.
“A clarinet can take the place of a violin, you can march with it. Jazz. Chamber music. It fits in everywhere. The approach differs in what the score demands.”
A music historian, his studio is filled with photos of those who provided him with musical inspiration or teaching inspiration.
“I was born with talent, had the unconditional financial and moral support of both my parents and practiced so hard I almost lost my fear of Hell,” he said.
Sometimes his guidance would come from learning about a piece of music, and how it came about.
“It is very exciting to learn the circumstances surrounding a particular composer at the time he wrote a piece,” he said.
Among the musicians and composers on his wall are his tutors, including Joseph Allard of Julliard, Harold Wright, the principal clarinetist of the Boston Symphony, and Karl Leister, principal clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic, and Pete Fountain, a famous New Orleans jazz clarinetist whose music enthralled a young Fullam.
Now not-so-young, Fullam figures there are more amazing pieces to be played.
“When you love music and make it your vocation, it never leaves you,” he said. “Even if you don’t play at the same level as when you were in your prime, it doesn’t mean you can’t derive as much joy from it.”