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He played 57 years in the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Richard D. Kelley joined the doublebass section LA Phil in 1956 and played on until his death last week, aged 76.

He qualifies for admission to our chronicle of the world’s longest-serving orchestral players.

His father, also named Richard, had played in the same section from 1930 for more than half a century. the pair spanned the history of conducting from Klemperer to Dudamel.


photo: LAPO

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  1. harold braun says:

    What a horrible week! Sir Colin Davis,Bud Herseth,David Zauder and now Mr.Kelley.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      But Harold – until a few hours ago, you didn’t even know who Richard D. Kelley was, or did you?

      • harold braun says:

        Sure I did.Ask me anything about any orchestra player in the US,and,to some lesser extent Uk,and wait for the answer.I mean,only if you are not just interested in making arrogant snippety remarks.

        • harold braun says:

          Sorry,I meant snippy remarks,of course(trying to write and phone both at the same time!)

  2. Michael Schaffer says:

    Norman – I am disappointed you explicitly chose not to include Eugene Levinson in that list – why noy? He didn’t just “gig around”, he played in major orchestras for many decades, in Leningrad, Minneapolis, and NY.

  3. Judith Lynn says:

    What an extraordinary record by this man and his father (neither of whom I had heard of before, but am very pleased to know about hem and their achievement).

  4. One reason many (if not just about all) European orchestras have mandatory retirement ages is to make room for young musicians. In the US, the older players in top orchestras double dip – they collect huge salaries and their pensions at the same time. I’m all for older people remaining active (I’m getting pretty old myself,) but at the same time, I understand the argument in this situation that they are consuming resources that should go to developing younger players.

    • Bob Burns says:

      Geez, what an age-ist thing to write. If the guy could play, any other consideration like age, gender, race, religion, etc., should be a non-issue. As a matter of fact, older, longer employed players supply an institutional memory in many organizations, not just symphony orchestras.

      Maybe Horowitz, Rubenstein, Walter, Stokowski, Stern, et al, should have been kept off concert stages?

      I don’t think so.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Horowitz, Rubenstein, Walter, Stokowski, Stern, et al weren’t salaried and pensioned employees of state-subsidized orchestras and opera houses as most orchestral musicians in many continental countries are.

        And nobody is “keeping them off the stage” when they turn 65. They can still perform and teach if they want to. But if they just want to retire and enjoy their pensions after many decades of hard work, they can do so, too. I think it’s a good thing that orchestral musicians in some countries have well paid, secure jobs and pensions and that at65, thry can retire in dignity rather than having to work until they fall off their chairs.

        • Terry van Vliet says:

          The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra is not state-subidized. It depends on subscribers and private donations. As a long-time subscriber to the LA Phil, I can assure you that every member of the orchestra, young or old, is a superb musician. That is no doubt why the orchestra has virtually sold-out performances week after week.

          Parenthetically, I think Norman Lebrecht might testify to the exellence ot the orchestra based on his experience of the Mahler Project he attended and participated in

          • Indeed, has done.

          • To belabor the obvious, the issue isn’t quality, but rather policies that increase employment opportunity for young musicians. Increased opportunity for younger players strengthens the field as a whole.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            I agree it’s a very good orchestra – but what does that have to do with what I said? Neither me nor anyone else said there was a connection between whether an orchestra is privately funded or state-subsidized and how good it is. There are very good and very bad examples of both categories.
            And it’s obvious that the LAPhil is not one of those state-subsidized orchestras where everybody retires at 65 otherwise Mr Kelley wouldn’t have been there that long.

          • The comment made on April 22 at 7:11 pm above here is so blatantly discriminatory that i find it hard to believe that it was written by the same william osborne who has been for years, here and elsewhere, harshly criticizing different orchestras – with various degrees of justification – for what he perceives as their discriminatory policies and practices. Why is it suddenly that “the issue isn’t quality”? Well, if it isn’t, then all kinds of discrimination including ageist are the only way to go. And that has never been known to strengthen any field – au contraire, the opposite effect is usually the ultimate result. As for the present functions and future prospects of symphony orchestras, i very much agree with comments made on April 23 by Robert Hairgrove and Michael Schaffer.

          • When people play in an orchestra for 50 to 60 years, they reduce an already severely limited job marked. It is discrimination against the young.

          • No, it isn’t, unless of course the young one is a better musician for the vacant position than the older orchestral veteran. Following wo’s twisted “the issue isn’t quality” logic, the entire auditioning process can be called “discriminatory” because it favors superior players over inferior ones. The issue IS quality and in fact it should be the ONLY issue. Bringing any other consideration into the equation is true discrimination, pure and simple.

    • Of course, it’s marvelous for a senior player to have spent a 60-year career doing what they (presumably) love. I’m also in favour of older people remaining active, but you can’t tell me that most 80-year-old orchestral players have anywhere near the agility, precision and power of 22-year-olds straight out of school who really NEED the jobs. Some of these ancients should have stepped aside long ago to give younger players (who actually sound a lot better!) a chance at building their careers. NB – this is strictly a general comment, not an aspersion on the recently deceased gentleman.

  5. James Creitz says:

    Boy, I have the impression some here are stepping in it in a big way and will have a job cleaning off their shoes. If Adolph Herseth can bring 50 years of experience to the position, still plays wonderfully at 70, and can mentor younger players, this can only be regarded as a gift to all, and certainly to the orchestra and its public.
    A mandatory retirement age will, of course, offer more employment to younger players, as Bill succinctly pointed out. Where should this be set? 40? 45? That would create a lot of jobs, but might not be positive in terms of orchestral culture. I have nothing but admiration for these players who can maintain their level and serve as inspiration for all for so many years.
    And as for teaching, Germany has a mandatory retirement age of 65 (+/-). Leonidis Kavakos, Josh Bell, Nai-Yuan Hu and many others studied with Joseph Gingold while he was 65-80. Should they have studied with younger teachers?

  6. A warning to timid eyes, a provocative comment follows. In scientific research institutes the older scientists usually need to retire since the fields in question advance almost unrecognizably. Only those brought up in the new systems of thought and technology remain relevant. Even Einstein fell out of date in many respects before he retired.

    Orchestras by contrast, have hardly evolved in the last 130 years. They have not created a significant new repertoire in at least eighty. They are inherently conservative, cautious, and static, which accounts for why they are dying. Thankfully. Nineteenth century cultural nationalism ended in unspeakable catastrophe, so why are we maintaining that artistic ethos instead of developing our own?

    This situation is probably compounded if the membership of orchestras ages excessively. Normally, it would be a question of finding the right balance between the experience of age and the adventuress of youth, especially in drawing younger audiences, but even that’s not going to help. Symphony orchestras are romantic, patriarchal, nationalistic, authoritarian, hierarchical, dinosaurs from the 19th century that are going to die regardless of who works in them or who leads them. They can put a Dudamel up front, but it’s like a vampiric old man getting a blood transfusion from a hyper-active 19 year-old so he can have one last fling.

    So why not let people play in orchestras for over half a century? They certainly don’t go out of date. Shouldn’t a dead art form for the elderly be performed by the elderly? Sorry for the harsh and cynical words, but classical music is slowly becoming aware of the brutal reality of death it is facing.

    If only we had more artists willing to “step in it,” young or old, classical music, for lack of a better term, might have a future.

    • Aren’t you comparing apples with oranges here? I have read somewhere that it is physically impossible for one person to skim, much less read thoroughly and process, all of the new research in the world of science which is being published every single day.

      With orchestral musicians, their job is to preserve their playing facility as well as to perfect their performance of the repertoire demanded by their employment (i.e. the orchestras in which they play). Of course, this must also include contemporary and avant-garde repertoire, and there are unfortunately many musicians who would rather not be troubled to learn and/or practice extended performing techniques such as circular breathing, microtones, complex rhythmic structures, etc. There is so much good contemporary music out there which is crying out to be performed. But to say that the institution of the orchestra is “thankfully” dying seems a bit cynical to me.

      And age really doesn’t have anything to do with the level of music-making — there are enough examples of excellent musicians, soloists as well as orchestra players, who have excelled well into their 70′s and beyond. As someone else pointed out, the generous pension plans that most European orchestras have set up for their players gives more than enough incentive to retire at a reasonable age for those so inclined. On the other hand, it seems to be getting harder and harder to find enough good young orchestra musicians who can satisfy the standards of some of our better orchestras to replace the players who are retiring.

      Perhaps the best solution in both the fields of science and music, and one of which we are seeing more and more, is the appearance on the scene of specialized ensembles. Two hundred years ago, ALL orchestras consisted of historically-informed musicians playing on period instruments. But they were playing contemporary music! (i.e. contemporary to their time). Today, because of the influence of 19th century models, we see specialized Baroque ensembles as well as specialized contemporary/avant-garde groups. There are fantastic groups out there in each field, something not possible maybe 50 years ago — because they know what they are doing! Being specialized, they can concentrate on their specialty and do it better than anyone else.

      • It is not age-ist to suggest that a 75 year old player probably doesn’t play as well as a 30 YO a couple years out of Juilliard or Curtis. And it’s just a simple fact that if someone stays in a job until 80 as opposed to 65, that’s 15 years he/she keeps it at the expense of some younger, well-trained musician who likely plays better (or in the case of Herseth, some other principal didn’t go to the CSO, and some younger person didn’t get that person’s job).

        Bud Herseth was the greatest trumpeter ever IMHO, but chances are in the last 5-10 years of his career he was not at his peak (he probably played great when he was 70, but was 79 when he retired). Dale Clevenger wasn’t, Ray Still wasn’t, Stanley Drucker wasn’t. Just as Michael Jordan at age 40 wasn’t the player he was at 25, and Leo Messi won’t be, either. It’s not age-ist, it’s life.

        Teaching is a different matter, in the sense that the younger person isn’t likely to be better, but there is still the issue of refreshing the personnel. Though obviously one wouldn’t want to have been without the wisdom of Josef Gingold in his later years.

        So while I admire the extraordinarily long tenure of Mr. Kelley, it probably cost some other excellent bass player down the line a job.

      • Hi Robert. Shouldn’t classical music be a bit more like science and not remain so static in its innovation and purpose? Should the flagship of classical music be a 19th century ensemble and its repertoire, or something that better reflects our own voice and world? Why did we formulate the idea that classical music is more about preseving tradition than expressing the values of our own time? Isn’t that ultimately a formula for a culture’s death? (BTW, we saw some wonderful fields of Blue Bonnets during our tour in Texas.)

        • That’s an interesting question, Bill. I’d have to say: no, it shouldn’t. Although there is inherent beauty in science, it remains ultimately utilitarian when compared with music. For example, we don’t treat anyone’s ailments with certain mercury compounds today because scientific research has shown that the substance is actually poisonous. We don’t heat our homes with lignite anymore if we have access to other kinds of fuel because science has shown us that it has a detrimental effect on the environment. We know about relativity theory these days, and that Newton’s laws sometimes don’t exactly apply in certain circumstances. Scientific progress makes it possible to lead better lives. But, as we all know, it also harbors many possibilities for terrible destruction of life. At least we can choose what we want to hear when it comes to music, or we can put in ear plugs. :) I do believe that music can have healing qualities, but not on the level offered by contemporary medicine, for example.

          Did Brahms, Liszt or Schumann “improve” the music of Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart? All three were great admirers of those composers, and they had a great influence on their style. But the music of the earlier composers remains unchanged, and rightly so. Although the music of Debussy and all those who came later would be unthinkable without the revolutionary harmonic language of Chopin (yes!), Liszt, and Wagner, all music written by later composers is by nature transformative and not necessarily evolutionary. We still perform Beethoven’s music pretty much as he intended it to be performed. That faithfulness to the score wasn’t always the case, as we know from Mendelssohn’s efforts at reviving Bach, for example. And we don’t relegate his music to the museum merely because we have great works by Brahms or Schoenberg which are somehow more “valid”, merely because they were written later and somehow more enlightened as a result.

          In the early days of opera and orchestras, starting perhaps with the time of Monteverdi, there was no distinction between ancient and modern music as we know it today. The orchestras of Haydn and Mozart played mostly Haydn and Mozart, as well as other composers of their time. Music of Bach and anything earlier was not forgotten, but sorely neglected. Today, we have to perform everything, from Monteverdi to Boulez, Carter, and Ferneyhough. And it is the institution of the symphony orchestra which has helped keep a lot of that music alive — including contemporary works.

          If orchestras die, a lot of very good music will die with it. Who will be able to perform Mahler, for example? Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. And by the way, when you speak of “nineteenth century cultural nationalism” — Beethoven for one would be loathe to have anyone call his music “nationalistic”, I would think. The fact that certain regimes have abused some music for their own purposes does not make the music itself any less worthwhile, although we know that some composers down the line probably wouldn’t have objected.

          (Glad to know that you and Abbie got to see some nice bluebonnets! :) Hope that you had a nice time on your tour otherwise, too, and that your bout of pneumonia didn’t get you down too much.)

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          william osborne says:
          April 23, 2013 at 7:29 pm

          “Hi Robert. Shouldn’t classical music be a bit more like science and not remain so static in its innovation and purpose? Should the flagship of classical music be a 19th century ensemble and its repertoire, or something that better reflects our own voice and world? Why did we formulate the idea that classical music is more about preseving tradition than expressing the values of our own time? Isn’t that ultimately a formula for a culture’s death?”

          I don’t think so. I don’t think classical music is all that “static”. While there is a solid block of central repertoire, the repertoire is also very big and previously neglected areas of it continue to be explored and new works added. Also, the interpretive approach to that core repertoire constantly changes. The period performance movement is a good example for this. At the same time, some interpreters revisit and reformulate older stylistic approaches – or seek to combine them with period insights. So we have a very complex, multi-layered approach to the classics now.

          Preserving those monuments of the past that we deem worth preserving because they are important cultural milestones or because they have stood the test of time is also actually a fairly recent attitude and part of the fabric of our modern mindset and our approach to our past and cultural history. Only in fairly recent history, maybe in the later 19th century or so, have we slowly begun to look at the past in its own context and attempted to preserve and understand it, through modern, scientific forms of historical study or archaeology. The same applies to music. So that is all part of an actually quite modern mindset.

    • Sir:

      I dissent from the sweeping generalisations casually thrown around by some people posting above that young people are inherently more “innovative” and older people “out of date”. If anything, I find many younger musicians to be more easily taken by dogma or orthodoxy, since their experience and standing are much more limited. As a result, many have the propensity to jump onto a bandwagon (thus appearing to be more “innovative”), whereas more experienced musicians tend to be more questioning (and rightly so), and think for themselves instead of mechanically following the whims of the latest celebrity. To describe the difference as a matter of “innovation” is a sophism. Embracing radical change is all very well, but it has to be tempered with an understanding of what is being lost as well as what is being gained: to cite an example in another discipline, the development of music notation software in the 1990s, whilst it brought definite practical advantages, has also resulted in many composers (those who forgot/never learned how to write music by hand) becoming illiterate in the matter of preparing scores and parts.

      I also resent the sweeping generalisations about young audiences: some of us quite like the peace and quiet of the “museum” aesthetic that thankfully still prevails in the concert hall that enables us to be absorbed in the music; and some of us appreciate the opportunity to hear musicians with a lifetime of experience on which to draw as well as “rising stars”. Those who do not might (or might not) have changed their minds by the time they become middle-aged (when they might be able to afford to attend more concerts). You are welcome to call a concert hall “stuffy” if you want, but please do not pretend that you speak for the younger generation: it is not homogenous. But nor need there be a constant antagonism inferred in all this: surely we should be allowed to enjoy a wide variety of performers of various ages, and performances in a variety of contexts, without constantly being labelled or pigeonholed.

      Musicians can change their minds too: just because an orchestra is full of older players does not necessarily mean that it is fixed in its ways. Experience might lead to greater hesitation in adopting change, but does prevent “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”. As for the (arguably more objective) matter of physical and cognitive faculties, of course these can deteriorate in old age, yet imposing a compulsory retirement age strikes me as an extraordinarily crude solution that does more harm than good, both musically and socially. Is our profession really so unimaginative and backward to the extent that it cannot do better? Average life expectancy has risen, so we have to accept in the 21st century that this will entail people having to wait longer before attaining the prestigious positions they might covet, and having slower career progression than previous generations.

  7. harold braun says:

    I am strictly against a mandatory retirement age.Everybody should be allowed to play as long as he or she wants,as long as he or she is up to it.And sure the number of them is not a significant factor in keeping younger players off the stage
    P.S.:I believe Jane Little,Atlanta SO.assistant principal bass emeritus(orchestra member since 1945) must be the longest serving orchestra member now.And the list of players being on top of their game over 65 years old is truly impressive,Just to name a few:Bud Herseth,Stanley Drucker,Jay Friedman,Maurice Murphy,Richard Horowitz,Larry Combs,Dale Clevenger(yes,even in his last years he did some wonderful work),Jules Eskin,Richard Kelley,and the list goes on and on…..

    • Stanley Drucker was a true legend, but years beyond his best work when he retired. Larry Combs retired at 69 and from what I can tell was still in excellent shape. Joe Robinson retired at 64, explicitly before people started to talk.

      Of course older musicians can make great music. Miecheslav Horzowski (sp?) played piano beautifully at 100, Milstein the violin at 82. Even though from a technical standpoint both were well past their prime. But orchestra work is perhaps as much about athleticism as artistry; it’s not easy to crank out 7-8 services a week, 40+ weeks a year. Plus the touring if you’re in a big orchestra, and the toll that takes on the body.

      The impact of the lack of retirement ages in U.S. orchestras on the job market can be measured with considerable precision: How many players are there over age 65, and far beyond 65 are they? You can do a pretty straightforward calculation of how many job-years are being held onto by older players that aren’t going to younger ones. In some cases this merely delays the entry of a new generation into the ranks; in others it may cause talented players to miss the window entirely.

      How do you define “still able to do it?” Alex Rodriguez has to prove every spring training that the Yankees have no better alternative third base. No orchestral musician has to do that.

      • harold braun says:

        Sorry MacroV,but I beg to differ.I heard Stanley Drucker in about 20 concerts between 1997 and 2009,in virtually all concerts the NYPO gave in Germany on tour and twice in New York.Among the works I heard him play were Tchaikovsky 4 and 5,Shostakovich 7,Mahler 1,Brahms 1,Dvorak 9,Strawinsky Rite of Spring,Strauss Don Juan and Rosenkavlier Suites,Mahler 5,Bruckner 8,Bartok Miraculous Mandarin Suite and Ravel Ma Mere L’Oye Suite.I was lucky enough to see and hear him play Copland Clarinet Concerto in one of his farewell performances,an absolutely stunning performance,comparable only to Benny Goodman’s.All his work in the pieces mentioned above was peerless,technically perfect and musically moving and full of insights.The Brahms 1st solo in the second movement brought tears in my eyes(Mannheim 2007),and it still does when i hear it in my memory.
        Mr.Drucker always had a very special,immediately recognizable sound,which you could like or not(I very much did!),but i could not detect a lessening of his powers in his late years.Principals in my opinion should be like opera singers,with a unique ,unmistakable sound ,full of character and personality.I personally don’t care about some fluffs or flaws, as long as the player or singer captures my attention and creates some magic and moves me.Today much of the playing has become a little more bland and unified.And Flagstad’s Isolde from 1953 is vocally a little more fallible then 10 years before,but what passion,power and panache! Maybe I repeat myself,but for me the same applies to orchestra principal players,especially winds.

  8. James Forrest says:

    My experience with the L.A. Phil. goes back to 1953, 3 years before Mr. Kelley joined their ranks. He came in, I believe, the season van Beinum became Music Director. Altho’ the orchestra’s true upward spiral began at that time, there were some marvelous players in the ranks: principal violist Sanford Schonbach (died young of cancer), first cellist Kurt Reher, first horn Sinclair Lott. Henry Lewis had played in the bass viol section. A splendid violinist named William Hymanson taught at my college and played amongst the first violins. David Frisina, the concertmaster, lacked an opulent tone but was a first rate musician. Dare I suggest that my ability to recall these names 6 decades later is some testimony to their quality as players . . . .

    van Beinum and Mehta had a lot of good “raw material” with which to build. van Beinum got the Board to purchase new brass instruments (except no new tuba), and Mehta was nothing if not good at personnel selection (as he later proved in NYC). He couldn’t find a comparable violist to replace the lamented Schonbach, but generally speaking, he strengthened the orchestra, just as his personnel choices strengthened the NYPhil for years after he had moved on. And he brought in Sidney Harth as concertmaster.

  9. James Creitz says:

    On an entirely practical side, and somewhat in Bill Osborne’s defense, as if he needed one, a truly non-discriminatory system would be to require existing orchestral players to re-audition for their positions, competing against newcomers every year. Apart the ridiculous bureaucratic expense this would entail, not to mention the disruption of the orchestral identity (which Bill might object to, but is part of the quality of many fine orchestras), this would certainly point out how utterly lacking present orchestral audition procedures are.

  10. As James Creitz correctly noted in his comment from April 24 above here, “the ridiculous bureaucratic expense” and “the disruption of the orchestral identity” are two of the main reasons why yearly re-auditioning idea is impractical. Yes, orchestral auditions are imperfect, and any suggestions about improving the process while keeping it reasonably practical would be appreciated.
    As for MacroV’s remark about baseball players having to prove themselves “every spring training”, suffice it to say that orchestral musicians of all ages do considerably more than that, because they must keep the level of their finely tuned musical skills in impeccable shape and be consistently at the top of their “game”, every day and every night, at every rehearsal and every performance. And don’t get me started on the differences in compensation, monetary and otherwise, between Alex Rodriguez and orchestral musicians.

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