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Booker Rowe

Booker Rowe Retires from The Philadelphia Orchestra

Posted by:  Dr. Patsy Baxter Rowe on August 27, 2020

In November 1968, Booker Rowe, a violinist, was living in New York City. He had just completed his Master of Music degree from Yale University a few months prior and had come to New York to freelance while deciding on his next move. To his surprise, he received a call from Philadelphia Orchestra Personnel Manager Mason Jones saying Eugene Ormandy, the music director of the Orchestra, wanted him to come back to Philadelphia to play for the remainder of the 1968–69 season as a substitute for a violinist who had died.

The tremendous significance of that call rests on the fact that the Kentucky-born Booker, who grew up in Philadelphia from the age of two, was raised on hearing The Philadelphia Orchestra and its sound throughout his life. He grew up around music in his home (his mother played piano and his father loved to sing); in his church; in the thriving African-American classical music community, where he heard and began to play classical music; and, most importantly, in the Philadelphia public school system, which, in the 1950s and ’60s, had an excellent, nationally recognized music-education program. Many professional musicians in the fields of classical music, jazz, opera, gospel, and many forms of popular music, received their early training in the city’s public schools—and The Philadelphia Orchestra was revered by all of them.

Booker chose to pursue classical music, and once he began to excel on the violin, he became known throughout the city and the East Coast as a talented young African-American violinist. Despite the effects of occasional racism, he thrived with the help of his parents, many well-trained dedicated teachers, and the rich musical climate of Philadelphia. Also, mostly everyone loved him! Despite his reclusiveness when practicing, he had a winning, friendly personality and loved to be around musicians and musical environments. The city was rich with stories of Booker and his violin. He carried it everywhere he went. In high school he was concertmaster of the West Philadelphia High School Orchestra, the All City High School Orchestra, and the All Eastern Conference Orchestra, and he had the opportunity to play as concertmaster of The Philadelphia Orchestra at a Student Concert. It was an early experience he still cherishes. All of his summers were spent at music camps such as Ventner, Tanglewood, Aspen, and Temple University’s Ambler Music Festival. Booker loved to play the violin and was known for his beautifully warm, but dynamic sound.

Between his early training and the call from The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1968, Booker had been busy gaining professional experience. He faced one major disappointment (along with other talented African-American musicians during this period) at not being admitted to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. He later discovered that only one person on the committee refused to accept him, so he was rejected. Moving on, he did his undergraduate work at Temple University and then played in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra for two years. During this time, he also played in the Nashville Symphony String Quartet, making it the first integrated professional string quartet in the south. This gave him the opportunity to play chamber, solo, and orchestral repertoire on a professional level. After two years in Nashville, he decided to return to school to study with Broadus Erle at Yale University and get his Master of Music degree. He completed that goal in 1968.

Upon Booker’s return to Philadelphia in 1968 to play with The Philadelphia Orchestra, the city was in a state of euphoria. Even though he was hired as a substitute, he was the first African-American musician to play with the world-renowned ensemble. The city’s musical golden child had returned home. But despite all of the well wishes, there were hurdles. Being the first African American was met with mixed feelings. Many Orchestra musicians welcomed and supported him—he knew many of them—but he also experienced isolation and disrespect as well. One day, he encountered the words “N..... Go Home” written on the Academy of Music backstage stairway he was known to use as he went up to practice. He was determined not to let it embitter or deter him. When he returned the next day, someone had removed the words. No one spoke of the incident, but he truly appreciated the respect and concern the removal represented.

The one situation that did deter him, however, was one technical change he had made while at Yale. The Philadelphia Orchestra used a spiccato bowing technique that Ormandy insisted his violinists use. It was a method of producing the spiccato style that was integral to Ormandy’s Philadelphia Sound and one that Booker had grown up using. At Yale, his teacher had spent three years getting him to change this method, but now in Philadelphia, Ormandy wanted it back! He advised Booker to work with a well-known New York violin master teacher to make the adjustment. Despite his tremendous frustration, Booker was determined to make the change. When he finished playing with the Orchestra for the 1968–69 season, he proceeded to work on changing the spiccato. It was during this time that Booker and I began to date. I was a voice student at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, and we had met two years prior to that at an orchestra concert at the Robin Hood Dell.

While working out the spiccato technique, Booker took a job playing with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., for the 1969–70 season.  In 1970, Ormandy hired him back for a full-time position, but on a conditional basis while he made sure the spiccato technique was solid. The Orchestra also hired Philadelphia violist Renard Edwards, an African-American musician, as its first permanent African-American player. Undeterred, Booker continued to work. Never one to take the easy way out and since he valued the technical training and approaches he learned from Broadus Erle, he worked to develop the flexibility to use both approaches. He was able to give Ormandy the bowing technique he wanted while also being able to use the other method when he felt it served the music best. Ormandy was pleased and Booker received his permanent contract for the 1971–72 season. His diligence has paid off, because the refining techniques he learned under Broadus Erle contributed to his ability to play the violin without causing debilitating physical conditions for over 68 years.

Booker and I have been married for over 50 years now, and we have two children and two grandchildren. His long tenure with The Philadelphia Orchestra has given him the opportunity to be a part of creating and preserving the ensemble’s overwhelmingly lush and beautiful sound. He will always remember the glorious concerts and the unbelievable travel experiences, such as the historic trip to China in 1973, the first American orchestra to visit the country. As he moves into retirement, he has no intention of retiring from the violin. It is an integral part of his life. Although he loves the orchestral repertoire and cherishes the 50 years of wonderful music making with The Philadelphia Orchestra, Booker is looking forward to having more time to play the solo and chamber music he enjoys so much.

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