NOTE: The Blue Ridge Orchestra concert referenced in this story has been rescheduled for 5pm Jan. 13, 2019, in Lipinsky Auditorium, at UNC Asheville.
It’s an early December evening, and cellist Franklin Keel is rehearsing with the Blue Ridge Orchestra. He’s the featured soloist in their upcoming program, and he wants to hear this Vivaldi cello concerto in a particular way.
“Ignore the half-rest,” he tells his fellow musicians. “Play quarter, rest, quarter, rest.”
Just from this window, you might see Keel as an exacting musician. In a conversation the following day, he insisted that’s far from the case.
“I have never been in a situation when my technique did not feel like a hurdle,” he said. “I sort of understood that if I’m going to do this, then I have to have the technique that will allow me to move this job forward.”
Keel has been a member of the orchestras in Hendersonville, Brevard, Bristol, Tenn.; and since 2004, the Asheville Symphony. Keel says none of that would have happened if he hadn’t turned his love of playing the cello into a studied and practiced craft.
Even after graduating the vaunted Eastman School of Music, Keel said he needed another four years of intensive study to refine his technique. In particular, he said it took him a long while to consistently hold his bow in a way that leads to efficient performance.
“Eastman was really hard for me. I was definitely intimidated and I did feel like I was out of my league,” he recalled. “I was this reckless teenager, twenty-ager, and I was late to classes and really focused on music but not so much on education. The one thing that sorta kept me together there was the drive to play the music I wanted to play.”
Keel is the oldest of four boys in a family, and he was a fifth-grader when they moved from Concord, N.C., to Asheville. By the time he was in high school, he was performing duets with his father, an amateur violinist. His love of Vivaldi ran along a parallel track with an appreciation of grunge and other popular music from the early ‘90s.
[Q5] I think it was just discovering classical music that I really liked and digging into that,” he said. “It just began to expand blossom into more and more music.”
For all his battles with technique, Keel has fought through the rejections of auditions. In Asheville, he auditioned three times for the associate principal cello chair before landing it, and even after 2½ seasons as the acting principal, he has never won the position outright through auditions. Still, he insists he’s never been interested in the upward career track of classical music.
“What I really want to be doing is making great music with the musicians of this community,” he said. “Whether or not I’m in a leadership position doesn’t affect whether that happens.”
Keel looks somewhat like the British actor and comedian Russell Brand, and he’s known to show up to orchestral rehearsals wearing a tie-dyed shirt and Birkenstocks. It’s yet another element of Keel’s unorthodoxy.
Beyond his orchestral work, Keel is a member of the Opal String Quartet and the eight-piece gypsy folk funk band Sirius.B, along with writing and performing his own music under the name Upland Drive.
“I think I’m more comfortable as an interpreter of other people’s ideas, because when I take my own to the table, it’s a different kind of exposure and vulnerability, and it’s a little scary,” he said. “At some point, you just have to move past that. Otherwise, you don’t express your ideas.”
If you missed Keel’s performances with the Blue Ridge Orchestra this past weekend, you can see him perform with Upland Drive Dec. 16 at Isis Music Hall. Sirius.B has a New Year’s Eve show at Jack of the Wood in Asheville.