Topic: International Musician Cover Story- Rufus Olivier

Congratulations, Rufus!


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Cover Story

International Musician, February 2005



When Opportunity Knocks:

Bassoonist Rufus Olivier on the Best Way to Answer that Door
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Ask Rufus Olivier how he got from a childhood in the troubled Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles to the top of his profession in the music business, and the response goes something like that old saying about getting to Carnegie Hall: "Practice, practice, practice," says Olivier, a member of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA).

That's only half the answer, though. As Olivier's career proves, all the practicing in world won't get you anywhere without the gumption to go after opportunities that come your way. Principal bassoonist of both the San Francisco Opera and Ballet orchestras, Olivier characterizes his rise in the music world as a billboard career. "I'd see something posted at school, like an opening for a community musical group or tryouts for a scholarship, and I'd just rip it off the board and try out," he says.

Growing up, music was always in the house. Olivier's sister played the violin, while his father was a sax player who had played in New Orleans big bands prior to World War II. Music at home was not only a pleasurable pastime, it was also an escape from the turmoil surrounding the Olivier home. Watts in the 1960s was a tense, racially-divided area, where violence was an everyday event.

Olivier was 10 when Watts exploded in riots. "We slept on the floor because we were afraid of the bullets," he remembers. In fact, several of his high school friends were killed before the age of 25.

A Ticket Out

Perhaps sensing the need for a way out of a bleak future, Olivier followed in his dad's footsteps, starting on the saxophone in school. Like most kids his age, he focused on jazz and rock, performing and touring through the South, and transferring to an LA school with a prestigious music program. Then a funny thing happened. "I saw 'The Sound of Music,' at that school, and I heard the orchestra," he says. "I decided right there that I wanted that sound in my life, and told my teacher. He put me on the oboe, but when I went to pick it up, the guy behind the counter said, 'we're out of those; here's a bassoon.' I loved it the minute I saw it."

He wasn't the only one. "My dad took one look at it, and said, 'I don't know what this thing is, but I want you to play it.' I think he knew I'd stand a better chance of working with a bassoon, than with a sax."

Olivier's first private bassoon lessons were all funded by PTA scholarships, which--naturally--he saw advertised on the school bulletin board. "Every year I'd take two buses to the University of Southern California for my lessons," he says. "One day, my teacher asked if he could drive me home. Then he asked to speak to my parents. He told them that he thought I could have a career on the bassoon."

Shortly thereafter, Olivier saw (on yet another bulletin board) that the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (LAPO) was having auditions for a minority student training program. He won the audition, and ended up studying bassoon with longtime LAPO principal bassoonist and Local 47 (Los Angeles) member David Breidenthal, who he says is "like a brother now." Olivier was able to sit onstage for LAPO rehearsals and "get the full orchestra experience: what it's like, what you do, and how you act." He was also able to see how full-time orchestra musicians lived. "They had stable lives, decent houses, and families to come home to." The LAPO's then-music director Zubin Mehta offered Olivier the chance to play a concerto with the orchestra in 1975. After the performance, Mehta approached Olivier with an offer. "From that point on, Mehta said I would be playing with the orchestra. I was 18 at the time, and there I was, playing co-principal with the LA Phil."

Up the Coast

In 1977, Olivier saw an ad for a section bassoon position in the San Francisco Symphony. "I didn't tell my parents," he says. "I just went to the airport and hopped a plane to San Francisco. It was an all-day thing, and I won." It was his second audition. "I held that job for three years. When the symphony split with the opera, I decided to try out for principal in the opera orchestra, and won it. So, essentially, I've been in the War Memorial Opera House, and with the same locker, for almost my entire professional career," he laughs.

Somewhat ironically, Olivier believes his relative lack of knowledge may have helped him in the music industry. "For me, it was all about the music. I always looked at potential jobs for how they could improve my playing, not my living standard. Would principal in the opera make me a better bassoon player? Just trying to make good music will make you a good musician, and you'll get that job."

At 23, Olivier was the youngest principal player in the Opera's history. Today, at 48, Olivier adds that he still has many of the same goals he had then. "I still have that vision of the perfect night on the instrument, and I still constantly strive for it."

Olivier counts his early years at the San Francisco Opera as his best education. "All those old-school guys I worked with, they played with Arturo Toscanini and George Szell," he says. "They were living links to the past, and they took me in under their wings." Of course, he's still learning. "The younger players joining the orchestra today are fabulous musicians. They keep my brain fresh, and they keep me motivated."

In the Pit

Opera and ballet repertoire both provide bassoonists with many thrilling--and extremely challenging--moments, but there is also a hefty amount of repetition to deal with. "Never utter the 'N' word--'Nutcracker!'" Olivier says with a rueful shake of his head. "I guess in a way it's easier for me, because I have a family to support, and I think of them whenever a production comes up involving a lot of routine. Being a family guy helps me, and I do it gladly for their sake. That said, I did try to do 38 'Nutcrackers' one season, and I made it to 36 before I cracked."

On the plus side, thrilling musical moments are equally easy to recall. Olivier particularly remembers the night that legendary opera star Leontyne Price filled in for an ailing singer in Verdi's "Aida." "I almost passed out, it was so incredible," he recalls. "The level of emotion was almost unbelievable. It was everything that music was supposed to be."

And there's no contest when comparing the occasional bouts of repetition to his former symphony job. "No, there's not much I miss about playing orchestral second bassoon parts," he laughs, adding that in the opera, the level of tension is the same. "We have a high pit, and we're just as visible as we'd be on stage." Olivier disagrees with musicians on the West Coast who think they're far removed from the 'real' music scene in Chicago or New York. "This is a great place to be. We've done groundbreaking productions here at the opera that have been written about in the press worldwide," he says. "San Francisco, moreover, has a terrific feeling of community, and the members of the public know their orchestras. I've actually been recognized by toll collectors on the Bay Bridge."

Honors and Activities

That notoriety took a major leap forward in February 1993, when San Francisco Mayor Frank M. Jordan awarded Olivier the Seal of the City and County of San Francisco in recognition of Exemplary Accomplishment for Black History Month. "I had played a concerto at one of the big men's clubs in San Francisco, and a local writer called me after the performance," Olivier recollects. "He told me that after reading my resume and hearing me perform, the city wanted to present me with the award. It came out of the blue--but I just add it to the other blessings in my life."

Those blessings most notably include Olivier's family: his daughter Samara is a university choir director, while son Rufus David is also a talented bassoonist. "We have a ball playing together," says the elder Olivier. "We're keeping music in the family, but I never pushed them. On the contrary, I always say I never complained enough about my job, because my kids still want to do it." In the next breath, however, he admits proudly that his kids know their dad has a great life.

His wife Vida looks after the musicians, "Pretty much a full-time job in itself," he comments. When opera and ballet season is done, he's never really finished, between recitals and chamber music. Whenever possible, though, Olivier plans his musical travels so that Vida can come along. "We were able to celebrate her birthday in Paris once when I was doing a recital there."

Olivier is currently working on a few concertos, as well as a piece that was actually written for him called "Carol." He performs frequently with, in his own words, "a strange little group" of fellow Local 6 members called the Aurio Trio, composed of tuba, bassoon, and piano. The name of the group is a playful reference to the famous sandwich cookie: "Pianist Karen Hutchinson is black, I'm black, and Zach Spellman, the white tuba player, is in the middle," he explains, a grin straining his poker face.

Passing It Along

Education is something Olivier believes in strongly. "When I was younger, I played for convicts in state prisons. Their reactions were astounding and rewarding. One prisoner actually came up to me and said, 'My counselor told me I'm supposed to be hanging around guys like you.' That's still one of the most amazing compliments I've ever received."

Olivier says that some people might think he doesn't do as much outreach these days. "That's because I was doing outreach with my kids for the last two decades," he counters. "I believe education starts at home, and I believe my wife and I put two really good kids out there."

He routinely tells his students about the Federation. "I've been in the AFM since I was 18, when I joined Local 47 in LA, and my dad was also in the union," he says. "When I think of all those years playing--and that one day I will not be able to play--it's good to know I'll have a pension to live on in my golden years." Olivier also believes the union has helped improve relations between musicians, management, and conductors. "There was a time, not too long ago, when players were not treated as well as they are now. If not for the AFM, we might still be in that situation."

Sometimes members of the public will ask him the typical musician question: if he plays for a living, or has a 'regular job.' "That gives me an opportunity to explain how things work in our business, and many people are surprised when I tell them I am in a union. I tell them because of the AFM, I'm able to make a living wage for what I do!"

Paul Barrett
   -Principal Bassoonist, Honolulu Symphony
    -Lecturer in Bassoon, University of Hawaii