It was 1968 when Booker Rowe, a freelance violinist in New York, got the call. On the line was Mason Jones, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s personnel manager — and star horn player — with a question from music director Eugene Ormandy that seemed to come out of the blue.
Did Rowe want to come to Philadelphia?
“I suppose he knew about me because I was from the city and gave recitals and I played in a lot of places, so people knew me in Philadelphia,” says Rowe of how Ormandy might have been aware of his existence. “I got this call from Mason and heard the orchestra playing in the background and said, ‘Oh, my god, they want me to come play with that beautiful orchestra.’”
Come and play he did. And now the violinist has decided to go. After a half century as a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Rowe, 79, will retire next month.
His withdrawal is a personal decision. All players grapple with the question of exactly when their time has come. The ensemble has no mandatory retirement age.
But his retirement also underlines an institutional concern particularly germane at this moment. Rowe is one of a small handful of Black players in a largely Black city at a time when orchestras across the U.S. are being scrutinized for low Black representation in the ensemble, staff, board, repertoire, and audience.
The Philadelphia Orchestra will now have just three Black members — a fact not lost on Rowe.
“I don’t think it looks good for where we are right now,” he says. “There should have been others. There are others out there who can play. It is disheartening.”
Rowe’s departure from the stage is part of a slightly larger-than-usual wave of retirements this year representing a combined 250-plus years of service. Also retiring as of Sept. 14 are stagehand James P. Barnes (who originally started as an Academy of Music employee in 1983); trombonist Eric Carlson (1986); trumpeter Robert W. Earley (1992); principal librarian Robert M. Grossman (1979); and double bass players John Hood (1982) and Robert Kesselman (1987).
Rowe was one of the orchestra’s longest-serving members, but his arrival hardly ushered in a new era of Black participation. The orchestra believes he was the first Black musician to play in the ensemble when he first performed with the group as a substitute in the 1968-69 season. He then played with the National Symphony Orchestra from 1969 to 1970, and returned to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1970, becoming a full-time member in 1971.
Violist Renard Edwards became the orchestra’s first Black member, in 1970. Few others followed. This season, Nicole Jordan becomes the orchestra’s new principal librarian and its first-ever Black female member.
Booker Taliaferro Washington Vance Rowe Jr. was born in Kentucky, raised in Philadelphia, and earned an undergraduate degree at Temple University and a master’s in music from Yale University. After his arrival at the Academy of Music, he received a positive reception for the most part.
“There were a lot of people that were wonderful people, that were helpful. Some who were not, who kept their distance,” he says.
He does remember arriving backstage at the Academy of Music one day and finding scrawled in a stairway the words: N- Go Home.
“The next day when I went up to practice someone had erased it,” said Rowe. “That was the only incident of that type. Basically, I ignored it. I said all of these people have not supported me all this time for me to leave. I had an obligation to everybody not to leave.”
Rowe says it was the pandemic that gave him the time to think about “where my life was going.” Retirement, after 50 years with the orchestra, “feels like jumping off a cliff.”
The orchestra last performed for a live audience in mid-March and plans to resume gathering in small configurations for performances without an audience to be streamed this fall. What the future composition of the ensemble might be is part of a larger examination.
“A year ago, guided by the belief that diversity is excellence, the Philadelphia Orchestra began a process called IDEAS — Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access Strategies,” said orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky in a statement. “Now, we are in the midst of a rigorous analysis of our organization at all levels and are entering an implementation phase where we have already begun to see IDEAS reflected in our values.”
One goal of the plan is to increase diversity in the ensemble, said Tarnopolsky. “Booker Rowe’s retirement this year is a significant milestone. We are committed to ensuring that new, diverse talent can be found to fill vacancies in the orchestra.”
Rowe is more concise.
“I am hoping they will fill some of those positions with qualified African Americans,” he says. “The music is so great that the orchestra should be able to draw them.”
Of that great music, Rowe recalls many highlights, like the way Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led Orff’s Carmina Burana at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “I remember just how much into it he was. It was like a party on the podium.” Ormandy, he said, had a way of bringing the orchestra “to a point. There were moments that were really gigantic, overwhelming.”
But his voice grows especially ardent when he talks about the sound of the orchestra when he first arrived — its depth and lushness.
“My first day, I came in late from New York and the orchestra was already rehearsing and I sat myself down on the last stand to play. The sound was amazing. It was like stereo all around me. The stage was slanted down, and when the brass and winds would play I had to brace myself with my right leg from being blown off stage. It was just so beautiful.”