A violist leaves the National after 50 years

A violist leaves the National after 50 years


norman lebrecht

May 11, 2018

William Foster joins our list of the world’s longest serving players after putting in 50 years at the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC ago, half of them as Assistant Principal Viola. He played for six of the NSO’s seven music directors – Mitchell, Dorati, Rostropovich, Slatkin, Eschenbach, and Noseda.


Also retiring as the season ends are violinists Holly Hamilton (40 years in the NSO), Peter Haase (34 years) and Pam Hentges (a mere 21 years).




  • Merely Wondering says:

    Is this news? Something to celebrate? An update of disappointment? A breaking bit of sadness from the musical front lines? Or is a poignant critical perspective being strategically avoided?

    I wonder if he should have prudently retired 10, 15, or 20 years ago? What’s the likelihood his playing standards were maintained, despite physical, mental and aural deterioration, for the full duration of the tenure? Is there any upside at all for a musician performing as part of a professional ensemble for 30+ years?

    Is there a place on the stage (or podium) for performers at age 65+? Perhaps the answer is absolutely not. . .

    In America there certainly is! A sad state of affairs, to be sure. A handful of players in each of our top orchestra regularly ruin performances, tarnish the potential of musical excellence, and generally bring embarrassment to what should otherwise be a closely monitored and curated roster of highly-paid artists.

    Good riddance, I say!

    • Merely Answering says:

      Good riddance? What a pompous ASS! I would bet you are not even a musician and are probably just another music snob that permeate music venues everywhere.

    • Holyfield Worthington says:

      This is a repugnant and unjustified attack on someone about whom you most likely have no idea

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Kudos to Mr. Foster for his distinguished career, He stepped down as principal after his son, Daniel, won the principal audition in 1995 (replacing Roberto Diaz). Congrats to the Foster family, the pillar of the National Symphony viola section.

      I am “merely wondering” why anyone would question such an accomplishment.

    • Anon! A Moose! says:

      “Is there any upside at all for a musician performing as part of a professional ensemble for 30+ years?

      Is there a place on the stage (or podium) for performers at age 65+? Perhaps the answer is absolutely not. . .”

      This is so ignorant it’s hard to know where to start.

    • Brian from Washington says:

      There is a special corral in Purgatory for nasty people like Merely Wondering. William Foster’s career should be celebrated. I’ve been attending NSO concerts almost as long as Foster has played with the orchestra. In those years Foster’s musicianship as well as that of the entire viola section and the whole NSO has given me and others enormous pleasure. Best wishes to him for a long and healthy retirement after the end of this concert season!

      • Anonmusician says:

        Merely Wondering. I bet you’re not a musician by these offensive remarks. Not even one rehearsal, hence haven’t a clue. And many of the older players, believe me, can still perform. Chicago. New York Phil. LSO. Met. Berlin Phil. Concerteboew. Etc…all have esteemed older musicians, who guide the younger generations!

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Don’t you people ever ‘get it’ when someone is being irreverent, ironic, or just plain wanting to be funny? Must everything be taken so seriously at face value?

    • Bruce says:


    • Anita says:

      What a thing to say. As though playing ability automatically disappears at a prescribed age.
      Ridiculous. It sounds as though you are waiting in the wings, wanting a job.

    • JJC says:

      If ever you are so fortunate to live to age 65, I hope you will revisit these words of yours and experience the intense shame that you so richly deserve.

      • Sharon says:

        In the United States, it is illegal to fire someone based on age. Mandatory retirement ages, once very common, are now illegal in the US. Nowadays 65 is considered young. I am planning to go into another career when I retire from my current job. I will be just a little under 65.
        If you read the Levine court petition protesting his firing from the Met, although he did not file an age discrimination lawsuit, it strongly implied that he was fired due to his age, in spite of the fact that he remained competent, and the sex abuse charges were just used as an excuse.

    • harold emert says:

      What a cruel statement ” a good riddance”…you obviously haven’t survived a long-time career in an orchestra …there are actually many musicians who improve–like wine –with age …shame shame

  • Roger says:

    Ouch…I’m amazed that some players have the patience and tolerance to sit in one orchestra for so many years. It drove me nuts, I think these ‘baby boomer’ players will probably be the last to achieve such incredible longevity. “Merely Wondering” – I sense and understand your frustration.
    On a lighter note, Can we get some nominations for the shortest orchestral careers as well?

    • Merely Answering says:

      Shortest career? Probably Merely Wondering (if he claims to be a musician) ONE REHEARSAL!

    • Max Grimm says:

      “On a lighter note, Can we get some nominations for the shortest orchestral careers as well?”

      While it’s not on a lighter note at all, the shortest possible career with any one orchestra is usually the trial period.

  • Neil Thompson Shade says:

    I find your comments completely offensive. Having attended many performances by the National Symphony, I have not detected any problems in the viola section.

  • MacroV says:

    There is a fair argument to be made that when one player stays around 50 years – instead of retiring after 25 – it effectively deprives another player of a career. This in an industry where top-level jobs are hard to come by. But I’m not making this argument with respect to any individual musician. And a person still needs to make a living, so unless you’re going to have a pension system that maxes out at 25 years, people will stay/play as long as they can.

    • Bruce says:

      I disagree. Yes, there are a limited number of jobs in top orchestras, but nobody has an obligation to leave their job just because they’ve been doing it X number of years.

      — UNLESS they have become bad at it. Clevenger and Herseth are of course prime examples of once-phenomenal players who eventually stayed so long that they tarnished their own legacies. They could, and should, have been replaced after the special qualities that made them unique were gone.

      Donald Peck, by contrast, was still doing a pretty great job when he left after ~45 years. (Ditto for Stanley Drucker after ~60 years)

      A section string player doesn’t necessarily need the technique (or temperament) to perform high-profile solos season after season, and can continue to make a solid contribution for many years, as well as pass on the traditions of the orchestra’s style to younger players.

      • Mark J Henriksen says:

        Herseth (and Clevenger) “tarnished” their legacies? That is a laughable statement.

        • Bruce says:

          What I meant was that they stayed in their jobs for so long that they became known to a whole new generation of players as people who were just not that good any more. If that’s laughable, then go ahead & laugh.

    • Anita says:

      Yet, every month, there are advertisements and notices for orchestral openings. One has to audition at a very high level to advance. There actually is plenty of availability, and the only thing “depriving” a younger player of a job is how they prepared and how they performed in the audition if they don’t succeed.

  • Dennis Ferry says:

    To Merely Wondering – Your vile, disgusting, and ignorant comments are despicable. Longevity in any field is to be admired. I am sure you know nothing of Mr. Foster. Could sour grapes be behind your attitude? Were you fired from every job you ever held? In addition, you are a coward for hiding behind a pseudonym.

  • Gerhard von der Linde says:

    As a musiclover I am observing Gerhard Hundt, he is soon in retirement of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, since many years. His 45 years career is soon over and the quality of his playing is now still extraordinary. This short film is wonderful:


    • Barry Guerrero says:

      I think his playing deteriorated in his first 10 minutes in the orchestra. In fact, I think all players should be frequently swapped out during performances. That’s the only way to maintain truly high standards.

  • Russian Bot says:

    Merely wondering’s comments may be hurtful but in many cases, painfully honest. I suffer next to a tenured incompent who refuses to retire and it takes all the joy out of music.

    There are so many who are suffering to get a job and my stand partner hasn’t practiced in 20 years if that. Brings down the whole section.

    • Bruce says:

      Nobody’s arguing that this doesn’t happen. My orchestra has had its share. But surely you recognize the unfairness of Merely’s assumption.

  • Ramon Scavelli says:

    Bravo !!!! Bill Foster. You have always been a credit to the NSO with your complete dedication, especially as a leader of the negotiating team that put the NSO in the front rank of orchestras.