Retirement Tribute: Randolph Kelly

By Paul Silver

Randolph Kelly
Randolph Kelly
PSO 2017 European Tour, Travel from Atlanta to Frankfurt
© Todd Rosenberg 2017

Randy was born and raised in Portland, Oregon.

When he was 6 years old, he began to play the violin following in the footsteps of his three older sisters. But as he jokes, “when I found out how hard it was, I really didn’t want to do it anymore!”

After all, he loved playing basketball and would much rather “shoot hoops” than practice the violin. And if he was going to play music, he would’ve preferred being in a rock band!

When he was a young teen, his violin teacher, looking to ignite a spark, suggested Randy consider trying out on the viola for the Portland Junior Symphony. So, he dutifully learned his two-octave scale and the first movement of the Handel Viola Concerto.

Lo and behold, he was accepted to the orchestra and officially made the switch from the violin to the viola.

After a year in the Junior Symphony, he auditioned for the Portland Youth Orchestra and was accepted as last chair. Then, between his Freshman and Sophomore year, Randy says, “it was like a disease hit me and I began to practice like a maniac.”  He recounts being entranced with the recording of the Chausson Poème played by Zino Francescatti.

At the end of his Junior year in High School, he announced to his parents that playing the viola was what he wanted to do. His Dad, who loved music, was worried – all of his musician friends were broke!

A real turning point for Randy was attending the Sun Valley Idaho Music Festival where he studied with Sally Peck. He remembers Sally’s beautiful viola sound and that her approach was to “teach people how to teach themselves.”

When Randy graduated from high school, Sally encouraged him to audition for the Utah Symphony. His audition was successful and at the ripe old age of 18, Randy had his first orchestra job.

He was thrilled to be playing in a professional orchestra with conductor Maurice Abravanel whom he describes as a really good musician and lovely person.

After two seasons in Utah, Sally suggested he try out for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

He never expected to get in – but he did! While there, he studied with Joseph de Pasquale, Principal Viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and was also able to have  extensive chamber music coaching with Michael Tree, violist in the Guarneri String Quartet.

In 1976, Randy came to Pittsburgh, joining the PSO as Assistant Principal Viola. The following season, he served as Acting Principal Viola and in 1978 was appointed Principal Viola by Andre Previn.

(A PSO footnote: though Randy arrived in Pittsburgh just after the departure of  Music Director William Steinberg, he did have a chance to work with him while a student at Curtis.) 

As one would expect during a 43 year career, Randy has countless memories. When asked to name a few highlights, he spoke about several things – his pride in the viola section and how wonderful it sounded (“terrific players who played great every night!”).  He recalled the performances of Mahler’s 10th Symphony with Previn and later with Maazel and numerous performances of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony.

Randy spoke with nostalgia about the “old guys” – the “characters” of the orchestra who were the veterans when he joined the PSO. 

He expressed gratitude for the opportunity to collaborate in concerto appearances with the orchestra as well as solo and chamber music opportunities with fellow PSO musicians and guest artists like Pinchas Zukerman. 

My first impression of Randy came well before I joined the PSO when I heard his terrific solo playingin Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote on a “Previn and the Pittsburgh” PBS television performance.

When I arrived in the orchestra, I immediately saw that Randy was a demonstrative leader – always there showing the way.  He was always prepared and worked as hard as anyone keeping his playing in “tip top” shape.

As a member of Randy’s section for 38 years, I, too, enjoyed the wonderful shared experience of performing Mahler 10 as well as the Penderecki Adagio – two pieces with big and challenging solo sections for the viola section.

Two non-musical memories of Randy I will carry with me:

  1. Playing tennis along with my brother Dan in Discovery Bay on a court right next to the South China Sea (during the PSO’s first tour to Hong Kong)
  2. Hearing him recount the funny story of spending an afternoon shooting a basketball with NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton of the Portland Trail Blazers (and how we joked that he was the other William Walton – not to be confused with the English composer whose viola concerto is treasured by violists everywhere).

Randy’s approach to the viola was one of gusto! His big, bold style and rich and intense sound reflected the character of the viola section for over 4 decades and had a big impact on the sound of the orchestra.

In speaking to him recently, I was struck with how much he still loves the music  and how much he still loves playing the viola and practicing.

One of Randy’s big regrets is that he was not able to say his “musical” goodbye to the Pittsburgh community when his appearance playing the Bartok Viola Concerto this spring was cancelled.

In lieu of those performances, we offer you this link to portions of a soon-to-be released CD on the IBS Classical/Naxos label featuring music of Glinka, Schubert and Hindemith performed by Randy and pianist John Novacek.  Thank you to Naxos Records for granting us permission to share this music with you!

(With permission from IBS classical/Naxos. These recorded examples are only to be used for this publication.)

Since COVID-19 also kept Randy from saying an in-person verbal goodbye, he offered the following: 

“I regret that circumstances forced the cancellation of my final concert with the PSO, and I was unable to say a proper farewell and express my appreciation.

Thank you to my friends in the orchestra, both here and gone.  I have many great memories that I will carry with me always. I had the pleasure of working with some great musicians. I also led an amazing viola section for many years, and it was an honor.

I also want to thank the Pittsburgh audiences that have lived through each of my 43 years here. You are the reason we are gathered together to make music.

All the best to everyone,

Randolph……”

As we say goodbye to Randy (who will soon become a grandfather!), we wish him and his family many happy and healthy post-PSO years!