Retirement Tribute: Joe Rounds

by Zachary Smith

Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel” is a musical depiction of a legend in German folklore. A prankster, a rogue, an impudent mocker of authority, Till’s entertaining satire spares nothing and no one. We have our very own Till Eulenspiegel in the PSO and, after playing horn for 35 years, Joe Rounds is retiring. Over the course of his long, distinguished career, Joe has ably filled the Assistant Principal/Utility, Second and Fourth chair positions in our horn section. 

I first met Joe in 1978 as a freshman at the Eastman School of Music and was immediately taken by his spirit of freedom and mouthy irreverent attitude towards authority. I also saw a seriousness and ethic for music and horn playing that belied his devil-may-care demeanor, something that is evident to this day onstage. You will not find a more passionate, caring or committed musician in the PSO. Or a bigger smart ass.

Joe grew up in Maryville, Missouri in a very musical household. His mother, an Eastman grad herself, started Joe on piano at age three and his father was a band director. Add a musically precocious older sister and brother to the mix and you have the perfect environment for a young horn player. Joe’s grandfather played banjo, squeezebox, and told jokes in travelling minstrel shows. The apple does not fall far from the tree, but the idea of our Joe in blackface is terrifying!

Joe Rounds in 1979 Eastman Yearbook
1979 Eastman School of Music Yearbook Photo – Teacher Verne Reynolds (Center), Joe Rounds to his right.

Joe started playing the horn in fourth grade and was inspired to pursue it professionally after participating in masterclasses with members of the St. Louis Symphony, namely Roland Pandolfi and Carl Schiebler. As fate and a small world would have it, Roland is the father of PSO second bassoonist Phil Pandolfi.

Joe did his undergraduate work at Eastman and started a Master’s degree at the University of Southern California, where he worked with LA studio legend James Decker. Decker’s personal interest and support was a huge lift for Joe and helped him win his first professional position, Third Horn with the Sacramento Symphony. Joe was in Sacramento for three seasons, which included a seventeen-week strike during the ’84-’85 season. Joe was chairman of the Orchestra Committee and the press spokesperson during that strike, and handled the pressure with grace and aplomb.

In 1986 the Pittsburgh Symphony had an opening in the horn section and I took the audition. There were many applicants and the preliminary rounds took place over the span of a few days. I played my first round and was advanced, and as I was standing backstage absorbing the news, who walked through the stage door but Joe Rounds! Our ensuing conversation went something like this:

Zach: “Joe! Hey man, how you doin’?

Joe: “Great- I played yesterday and am in the finals!”

Zach: “Wow! I just got advanced too, and I need to burn off some energy, maybe go walk around outside.” 

Now, at this point about twenty auditionees were standing around us, intently listening for any pearls of wisdom they might glean from us. They were hanging on our every word.

Joe: “To stay loose between rounds I went over to Doc Johnson’s (adult video store) and watched some videos. I played the Mendelssohn Nocturne with … (graphic description and language)!” 

I heard a collective low groan and watched the poor auditionees slink away in horror and defeat. Joe won the job, and here we are 35 years later! A fake magnolia tree now marks the spot of the old video store at Seventh and Penn.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Horns playing the Schumann Konzertstück in 2004 with Sir John Gardiner conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Soloists: Joe Rounds, Ron Schneider, Bob Lauver, and Bill Caballero (left to right).

Joe and his wife Sarah live in Bradford Woods, where he’s been since 1988. Impressively, he is a Third Degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do, learning from Grand Master Kong, Young Bo. As crazy as it sounds, Joe credits me and my love of boxing for getting him into Martial Arts. I just like to watch, but he could actually kick you in the head!

Over the years in the PSO Joe has served on many different musician committees- Orchestra, Players, & Core Audition – and came to appreciate the multi-tiered level of relationships that develop from that non-musical work. You see strengths, skills and abilities in colleagues that aren’t apparent onstage. I asked Joe what he thought he would miss the most upon retirement and he didn’t miss a beat. “I’m in a great neighborhood- of course the horns but the Percussion section, the Bass section, Gretchen (harp) ….  His voice trailed off because it is hard to contemplate and talk about these things. Safe to say, with your bon mots and perfectly timed one-liners, no one will be missed more by the neighborhood than you, Joe. Happy retirement!