Emilio Anthony Gravagno, 82, a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s double-bass section for more than four decades, died Saturday at Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania after a long struggle with lymphoma.
Mr. Gravagno, who lived in Wayne, retired from the orchestra in 2009, but remained active in musical circles in recent years - sometimes as a patron. With his wife, philanthropist Carole Haas Gravagno, he recognized his alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music, with a gift of special significance by underwriting a space when Curtis’ Lenfest Hall addition opened: the Carole H. and Emilio A. Gravagno Double Bass Studio, a roomy new hub for studying the jumbo string instrument.
He recently donated his own longtime double bass - an unusually large, Italian, 19th-century instrument once owned by important pedagogue Anton Torello - to Curtis, where it is now being played by a student.
Last Friday, the day before his death, he was serenaded in his hospital room by mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis and guitarist Allen Krantz, and on guitar by one of his sons. The composer Hannibal Lokumbe visited to read and sing a bit from a forthcoming work, Crucifixion and Resurrection, that the couple has commissioned in reaction to the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. “Hannibal noticed he was getting tired and started to go," said Haas Gravagno, "and Emilio said, ‘Wait a minute, I want to hear the rest of it.’” And he did.
Born in Chicago, Mr. Gravagno took up the double bass in high school. He attended Southeastern Louisiana College and DePaul University before entering Curtis in 1954, where he studied with Roger Scott. After his Curtis graduation in 1958, he played in the New Orleans Symphony and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, joining the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1967.
Mr. Gravagno was involved in helping to negotiate the often rocky relationship relationship between Philadelphia Orchestra management and musicians, serving as chairman of the members' committee in 1987 in talks for a new musicians' contract. It was during the 1996 musicians’ strike that he left the picket line to ask a board member to sign a petition.
“I said I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to sign it,” said the board member, then known as Carole Haas. But she read it, and signed.
After the 64-day strike was settled a lunch followed. And then one night at the Mann Center, Mr. Gravagno’s car was stolen, and he ended up getting a ride from Haas Gravagno. They married in 1999. It was she who suggested that he reinstate his original Italian first name rather than the American "Lee" by which he had become known.
“His smile was contagious, that was the thing that melted me,” she said. “He was a happy person, he liked people. And I think the music was just in him. It usually makes people feel good.”
In addition to his wife, he is survived by sons Daniel Scott Gravagno and Cary Joseph Gravagno; stepchildren W. Mitchell Fenimore, III and Scott Collins Fenimore; his first wife, Ann Chastain; brother Carmello Gravagno; and grandchildren, step-grandchildren and one great-step-grandson. A son, John David, died earlier.
Donations in his name may be sent to Abramson Cancer Center, 3535 Market St., Suite 750, Phila., PA 19104 (checks made out to Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania); the Curtis Institute of Music, 1726 Locust St., Phila., PA 19103; or the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, One S. Broad St., 14th Floor, Phila., PA 19107.
A celebration of Mr. Gravagno's life has been set for Oct. 17 at 11:30 a.m., with a musical prelude starting at 11 a.m., at St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh, Camp Hill Rd. and S. Bethlehem Pike in Ft. Washington.