Is this the longest serving orchestral player?

I’ve had an email from Lake Placid, telling me that the bassonist who joined in 1947 has just hung up his instrument.

Has anyone, anywhere, played longer?

Here’s the mail:

Mr. Lebrecht

I am Music Director of the Lake Placid Sinfonietta (NY), which has
been in operating since 1917 and is now a 6 week Summer festival
orchestra. Our Bassoonist David Van Hoesen just retired last Saturday
(performing a solo no less) and he has been in the group every year
since 1947 which could be the longest orchestra tenure ever? He was a
legendary teacher at Eastman having taught many of todays leading
Bassoonists including Judith Leclair and Roger Nye of the NY Phil. I
have a blog but your readership is huge and would do pointing out this
incredible career the justice it deserves. I am happy to provide more
information if you wish
Best wishes
Ron Spigelman

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  • That’s quite amazing! My husband, Jerry Epstein, just retired last September after 43 years in the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a violist and I thought THAT was a long time….

  • Norman,

    Ron Spigelman’s query about the longest orchestral tenure is a good one. I looked into the topic a few years ago when working on a story about a violinist in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra named Felix Resnick, who joined the orchestra in 1943 and remained a member until his death in 2008 at age 89. His 65 years would appear to edge Van Hoesen’s 64 years by a nose. However, there is an asterisk — the DSO was dormant in 1959-61, so a letter-of-the-law reading would put Resnick’s tenure at 63 years. No matter which way you read it, however, both are remarkable achievements. At the time I wrote my story in late 2005, phone calls to the other top dozen or so American orchestras seemed to confirm that Resnick was at the time the longest-serving active member of any major American orchestra. But I always wondered if there was a musician at a smaller orchestra in the same ballpark as Resnick — now I know there was a bassoonist in Lake Placid that belonged in the discussion.

    Having said all that, I think that clarinetist Stanley Drucker’s 61-year run as clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic (1948-2009) — the last 49 as principal — is in a class by itself. I doubt there’s ever been another orchestra musician in such a high-profile position who ever played so well for so long

    Coda: The premise of my particular story was to contrast the lives and careers of the oldest musician in the DSO (87 at the time) with the youngest (23), explore the way that a mix of experience and youth is an asset for an orchestra and to examine the delicate issue of veterans whose skills have declined beyond the point of basic competency — which, by the way, never happened to Resnick, who carried out his duties with dignity until the very end.

    Mark Stryker
    Detroit Free Press

  • I’m interested in long-time string quartet players. The longest I know are Arnold Rosé, who played in his quartet from 1882 to 1945, and Valentin Berlinsky, who played in Borodin from 1945 to 2007. Robert Mann played in Juilliard from 1946 to 1997. The Portland String Quartet has had all four players together from 1969 to now.

  • I believe the longest playing with a major Orchestra is clarenetist Stanley Drucker who played 1949-2010 with the New York Philharmonic.

  • Actually, I am proud to say that here in the Utah Symphony we have both David and Stanley beat. Our esteemed colleague, Francis Darger, has been playing violin here since 1942, so counting a brief one year hiatus early in her career, Francis has been performing here for 68 years.

    She submitted a marvelous little autobiographical sketch to ICSOM Secretary Laura Ross, which appeared in the June, 2008 issue of our quarterly newsletter, Senza Sordino. It appears below. At the time of this issue’s publication, to our knowledge, only Felix Resnick (a former violinist with the Detroit Symphony) had logged more years than Francis and only by a single season. But he had recently passed away in2008 with “but a mere” 66 years of service.

    Utah Symphony — Francis Darger

    “George Brown forwarded my request to Frances Darger, who is
    completing her 65th year with the Utah Symphony this season.
    She relates that she was born and raised in Salt Lake to an opera singing
    mother who started her on the violin at the age of nine and
    sent her to the local youth symphony, which was conducted by
    renowned Tabernacle Choir organist Frank W. Asper. It was at these
    rehearsals that she fell in love with music.
    The Utah Symphony began in 1940, although there were previous
    incarnations, including a WPA orchestra. Because of World War II,
    the Utah Symphony needed players, so Frances felt fortunate to start
    playing with this fledgling group in the summer of 1942. According
    to Frances’s records, the 1942 season consisted of 18 weeks,
    with the six-service weeks paid at the rate of $6.25 per service
    ($37.50 per week). That first season included five concerts,
    conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, Jose Echaniz, Albert Coates,
    Christos Vronides, and James Sample. The 1946–1947 season,
    under Music Director Werner Janssen, increased to 20 weeks at
    $50 per week; however the 1949–1950 season was reduced to
    18 weeks, again at $37.50 per week, two years after Music Director
    Maurice Abravanel took over. According to Frances, he built the
    orchestra “upward and onward magnificently,” and in the 1979–1980
    season, the Utah Symphony became a 52-week orchestra.
    Frances Darger played during the 1942–1943 and 1943–1944
    seasons and then spent a year in Los Angeles with her four sisters
    trying to break into the “swing-singers” world. When that did not
    materialize, they all returned home, and Frances returned to the Utah
    Symphony for the l945-46 season. She has played there ever since
    and says she has loved the whole adventure. What follows are some
    remembrances in her own words.

    “It has truly been a joy to watch the progress of our Utah Symphony.
    I actually began playing five years before Maurice Abravanel
    arrived, and there were a number of conductors during these
    war years. I particularly remember a wonderful concert with
    Sir Thomas Beecham. As for music directors, I have ‘survived’
    Maurice Abravanel (32 wonderful years), Varujan Kojian, Joseph
    Silverstein (a fantastic musician), and Keith Lockhart.
    “During my many years of playing there have been many memorable
    experiences but my favorite was to play at the base of the Athens
    Acropolis in 1966 with the lights ablaze on those timeless rocks. And
    it is still a joy to play all that beautiful music.”
    —————————————————————————-
    george brown
    Principal Timpanist and ICSOM rep/Utah Symphony

  • There’s a 91 year-old violinst in the Philadelphia Orchestra, Jerome Wigler. No idea how he’s been with the ensemble, though…Apparently, he knew Rachmaninov.

  • Don’t forget legendary cellist Jules Eskin, still playing wonderfully well, who has been principal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1964, before that principal of Cleveland Orchestra 1960-1963. Not to mention his first job in the section of Dallas Symphony that he got at age 16! I think this might be the longest career, or one of them!

  • When I was a student I played in the Grosse Pointe Symphony Orchestra in the metropolitan Detroit area. Felix Resnick was the conductor, so I do remember him well! In the back of my mind I recall that he wrote sound tracks for industry films produced by he car makers in Detroit. Anyone have the inside scoop on that?

  • Maybe it’s time to retire when you hit 60 years of service. Move aside and let some deserving young person have your job (and Lord knows there aren’t enough jobs out there). Don’t try to tell me that an 89-yr-old string player can still play as well as a 29-yr-old. Just because you CAN still hold a violin and face the right way doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

    • Absolutely not. You should be able to play for as long as you remain competently able to do so. Older players bring a wealth of experience – look at the posts above and see a 91-yr-old violist who apparently knew Rachmaninov… there’s a fair few stories there which can influence the younger generation’s playing of his music, I would wager.

      The flip side is that if one can’t play to an appropriate standard any longer then of course one should retire or move on – regardless of whether that is when one is 28, 42, 67, or 83.
      The problem [warning, generalisation ahead] is that it is too difficult to remove poor players. Much like poor teachers in the UK, for example – nobody doubts that amongst all the good ones there are some who are substandard (and a few severely substandard), but they just get pushed to one side and left to badly teach. There are IRO half a million teachers in the UK, all told, and a mere 18 dismissals for poor teaching in the last 40 years. It’s fairly implausible that there have been no more bad teachers than that (some simply won’t be remedied by further training of course): likewise any orchestral musician will be able to tell you who in the orchestras they’ve played in shouldn’t be there. It suggests that the problem is, as it is with orchestras by-and-large, that “rules” make it very difficult to demonstrate capability and deal effectively with bad playing.

      But “no” to your suggestion – there shouldn’t be an upper (or lower) age limit; it should be a simple matter of being able to do the job.

  • Apparently Stefan is oblivious to the concept of artistry.

    Just because you CAN play the notes doesn’t mean you ARE an artist.

    • No, but you should at least be able to hit a few notes correctly before you can even think of calling yourself an artist. 😉
      Sadly, many people see art and technique as opposite qualities, whereas technique is simply the means to arrive at art. One cannot go without the other.

  • Early in my career, I had the honor of working with Martin Ormandy, a wonderful cellist and an even greater soul. His documented career in New York as a freelancer, member of the NYPO, and then freelancer (again) stretched from 1921 to 1996. When I joined local 802, my card number was L5757; his was an “O” in the low 200’s!

  • I think Richard Horowitz.,Principal Timpanist with the MET,started in 1946,and is,according to the orchestra roster for the 2010/11 season,still playing.He was born in 1924,and is also famous for making conductors batons.And think of Bud Herseth,CSO Principal Trumpet from 1948-2001(Principal Trumpet Emeritus from
    2001-2004).Other longtime players include Jacques Margolies,and Newton Mansfield(both Violonists with the New York Phil,Mr .Mansfield still playing).Really impressive.And,mind you dear Stefan:If the didnT play well,they would have been sacked long before(other than in Germany).

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