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Richard E. Holmes obituary: Principal SLSO timpanist

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2011 - For more than 40 years, Richard Holmes owned a corner of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra stage, usually up stage left. Mr. Holmes' friends and family will return to Powell Hall on Monday to remember the musician, who died of lung cancer Sunday at his home in Lake Saint Louis. He was 69.

Mr. Holmes's long career had included playing in the orchestra pit when Barbra Streisand was rocketing to stardom on Broadway in "Funny Girl" and his timpani mallets gave energy to the Rockettes' precision kicks at Radio City Music Hall. But he had been St. Louis' own since 1969.

"He was the heart and soul of the St. Louis Symphony, helping to bring the orchestra up to the prominence it has achieved," Leonard Slatkin, the Symphony's former conductor, said in a statement.

"When it came to the best, Rick headed the list. St. Louisans were fortunate to have him for his entire career, as he could have played in any orchestra in the world."

Mr. Holmes is also remembered for his work with the Young People's Symphonic Orchestra at the Webster University Community Music School for a dozen years where he was considered a father figure who held students to the highest standards.

A Legend in the Making

Slatkin and Mr. Holmes met while both were students at the Juilliard School of Music. It's also where Mr. Holmes met fellow SLSO percussionists John Kasica and Thomas Stubbs. Kasica arrived in St. Louis two years after Mr. Holmes.

"After having been exposed to Rick's playing ability, I said, 'If Rick is there (St. Louis), it must be pretty good'," Kasica said of that long ago decision to audition for the SLSO.

In fact, when he was a grad student at Juilliard, Mr. Holmes tutored the freshman Kasica. Their teacher was a famed timpanist and symphony orchestra leader, but Kasica was watching Mr. Holmes.

"He was playing the kettle drums so unbelievably, that I said, 'I want to learn how that guy does that,'" Kasica recalled. "Saul Goodman would give me a lesson on Monday; on Tuesday, Rick would teach me the technical details, like how to use my hands. I admired him from Day One. He was a legend in the making."

At times a mirthful legend. Kasica remembers how Mr. Holmes eagerly dressed up for a Halloween concert.

"Rick comes out in what looked like a real banana," Kasica laughed. "I was a carrot and Tom (Stubbs) was Snoopy."

En Route to St. Louis

Mr. Holmes was born April 23, 1942, in San Juan, Rizal, in the Philippines. He was the oldest of four children of Charles Holmes, an American engineer, and Maria Cantillo Holmes, a Philippine native.

Mr. Holmes was a versatile musician who entered Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., in 1960 with a vocal scholarship. After a year, he went to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to study piano and percussion. He made his professional debut as a member of the percussion section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1962.

Later, he would attend Juilliard, where he studied percussion and conducting. During his time at Juilliard, he became a regular extra with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He earned his bachelor and master of music degrees, then interrupted work on his doctorate to join the SLSO as principal timpanist, to the lasting delight of conductors with whom he worked.

"A conductor's best friend in the orchestra is always the timpanist, for that musician precisely defines the rhythmic personality of the whole," David Robertson, the symphony's music director and conductor, said in a statement. "Rick Holmes was perhaps the best rhythmic friend I ever had."

Mr. Holmes had his own way of describing his work.

In a SLSO Playbill interview in 2006, Mr. Holmes spoke of a transcendent experience during a Mahler piece, Das Lied von der Erde.

"For me it was a lifetime: ... a birth, a life, and a finality. There are many pieces that feel that way. You're born, you're a seed, it germinates and develops into a flower or a plant and breathes and lives the storms that may encompass the countryside or experience the sunlight or the fresh air, and then at some point withers and fades away."

A Father's Heart

Mr. Holmes' work prior to coming to St. Louis included performing with the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Colorado, where he also served as a member of the percussion and conducting faculty. He spent a year as music director and conductor of the New York Youth Symphony before heading to St. Louis in 1969.

In addition to serving as principal SLSO timpanist, Mr. Holmes previously taught timpani at the former Saint Louis Conservatory of Music and conducted St. Louis Symphony educational concerts.

In 1999, he returned to his work with youth, becoming conductor of the Young People's Symphonic Orchestra at the Webster University Community Music School.

"He was amazingly dedicated to the orchestra and the kids," said Carol Commerford, director of the school. "He cherished the time he had with the students. They felt his love and devotion and they responded.

"He brought the Symphony's culture and standards to their rehearsals and their performances and they worked up to that standard," Commerford added.

Upon hearing of Mr. Holmes' death, a former student, Alex Blank, who played bassoon in the orchestra and is now studying composition at Indiana University, wrote: "All who knew him will miss his presence and his contributions to what made St. Louis such a wonderful city for the arts and education."

"He had a father's heart and he passed on the best and brought out the best in students," Kasica said.

"He loved playing and teaching equally," said his son Raphael Holmes as he rushed to a Symphony dress rehearsal. "His work was an obsession, in a good way."

Like his father, Raphael is a percussionist. He has been an extra at the SLSO since 1996 and will be taking his father's place as timpanist for the remainder of the summer.

"It's what he would want," Raphael said. "I'm trying to comprehend what big shoes I have to fill, but I've literally grown up with that orchestra and it's just such as honor to be with them."

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m., Mon., June 13 at Powell Symphony Hall.

Mr. Holmes was previously married to Gail Schultz of Chesterfield. He was preceded in death by his father and a son, Benjamin Holmes.

Mr. Holmes' survivors include his son, Raphael Holmes of St. Louis and his mother, of Sacramento, Calif.; a daughter, Jenifer Ullery of Glendale; two sisters, Patricia Covey and Diane Holmes, both of Sacramento; a brother, Charles Holmes of Los Angeles and four grandchildren.

The family would appreciate memorials to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, 718 North Grand Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63103; or the Humane Society of Missouri, 1201 Macklind Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63110.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.