Longest serving principal flute dies, aged 88

Paul Renzi, principal flute of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for 60 years, 1944-2004, passed away on Wednesday night.

Paul was hired at 18 by Pierre Monteux and caught the ear in his first season with the tricky solos in the brand-new Shostakovich Sixth. He knew all about orchestral life from his father, who played oboe under Toscanini in the NBC Symphony and came west when the orch was disbanded.

Paul came 11th in our list of longest-serving orchestral players, the highest ranking flute player.

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  • Before considering orchestral careers, students should remember that positions are rare to the extreme, and that people who get them in the USA will sometimes hang on to them for 60 years or more. In most of Europe, there are mandatory retirement ages. The thought is to allow all generations to share in these positions.

    • You certainly have a point, but this is a very Procrustean method. The day comes too late for some, too early for others, and rarely at the right moment for anyone. And it is interesting to note that this benevolent approach to the needs of coming generations never applies to people in power positions, be it politicians, managers, or in our musical field conductors.

  • You make a good point, William. But on the flip side, the wisdom and skills a player aquires during a tenure this long are invaluable to the next generation of players.

    And not just on a musical level. Paul Renzi’s career spanned numerous music directors, an orch. restructuring (SF Symph split from SF Opera), countless orch. personnel changes, a significant venue change (to the acoustically challenged Davies Hall) and much more.

    To have flourished for 60 yrs. on the job required far more than just being a fine player. The intelligence, diplomacy, flexibility, perserverence and work ethic necessary are often the very skills which players need most to keep and hold an orch. job. Paul Renzi, by example, and through his teaching shared this knowledge.

    • Your admiration for Renzi is fully justified. If he had worked in the orchestra for a mere 30 years he could have then had more time to teach. And if two players had worked for 30 years, there would have been two players with decades of experience to pass along.

      Another thought that comes to mind is that the long tenures of so many players has made it more difficult to leave behind the gender imbalances created in earlier times, especially in the solo wind positions. By current stats, a woman would have had a possible chance of gaining a flute position even 20 years ago. But again, I sympathize with your appreciation of his work. This isn’t about him, but just an observation of the larger concepts of retirement and its purposes.

      • What do PC quotas have to do with art? Perhaps a Rubinstein or Horszowski should have been made to retire at 65 to make room for younger pianists?
        The VPO has a mandatory age 65 retirement but is far less accepting of women and ethnic minorities than any American orchestra.

      • Mr. Osborne,
        You definitely did not know just how good my father, Paul Renzi, was at the flute and
        also classical music in general. Did you know he was also a very good piano player?
        He could read anything. Later in his years he took up reading a book of Beethoven
        string quartets, he could hear all four instruments in his head as he read.

        His flute playing was beyond anybody else. Would it have been better that Michelangelo
        stop sculpting so his students could prosper? Along with the symphony job he kept
        so long, he was also a 30 year professor in music and flute in San Francisco State
        University. Along with that, he gave private lessons at half the cost of other principal
        symphony musicians at home in afternoons, Saturdays and Sundays. I know, I grew up
        with it. This man shared his music like no one else. When a student was ambitious and
        catching on, he would extend his lesson from an hour to sometimes three hours without
        charging any more. I’m sure many people miss his amazing artistry, tone, volume, fluency,
        and no doubt, his personality. I’m glad he played as long as he did, but it still was not
        enough. He was totally worthy of it.

        Thank you
        Mike Renzi

        • I totally agree with Mike. I was a student of his at SF State in the ’60s. There will never be anyone with a more gorgeous tone than his! I miss him still!

  • Since positions are indeed so rare, the need for the additional teachers that the retire-them-sooner plan would create is probably slim.

    It’s a solution without a problem.

  • Great orchestral players should be celebrated. But, speaking of principal flautists, perhaps there should have been some recognition of the passing of Oliver Bannister, in the UK. He joined the newly reformed Halle at the age of 17 and stayed for twenty years before moving on to the ROH orchestra where he stayed for another 23 years. His playing can be heard on Halle recordings from the 50s and early 60s, in particular his glissando in the fifth movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. There was an obituary in The Guardian on 14th December and on-line.

  • The comparison to Rubinstein or Horowitz is inappropriate. Solo artists keep getting work as long as there is interest to engage them; many of them quietly disappear as their skills or appeal diminish, and new people come on the scene. Orchestra musicians occupy fixed positions, and as long as they do so, the position is not available to anyone else. I’m sure Paul Renzi was a great flutist in his day, but surely there were “better athletes” available for his position years before he retired. I would say the same about other orchestra legends, including Stanley Drucker and the greatest of them all, Adolph Herseth.

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