A once-professional cellist returns to his love, and helps others along the way

Retired Seattle PR executive Louis Richmond set aside his beloved instrument for almost 30 years to make a 'real' living. Now he plays at senior centers and a food bank, and the avocation brings riches of its own.

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Waiting in line with Bach and Bartok at the Wallingford food bank.

Retired Seattle PR executive Louis Richmond set aside his beloved instrument for almost 30 years to make a 'real' living. Now he plays at senior centers and a food bank, and the avocation brings riches of its own.

Every other Tuesday, Louis "Louie" Richmond walks into the Wallingford food bank with the instrument he has owned and played longer than he has known almost anyone in his life — his grandchildren, his son, his wife, most of his friends.

He purchased the cello in 1955, when he was 13, from a dealer in Philadelphia, wearing a suit and tie for the occasion as he always did when he visited the shop, which was well known as the finest in Philadelphia. There, he once saw the Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich trying out an instrument.

The cello was Richmond’s first full-sized instrument. (He started playing at age 6.) It was made in Berlin 100 years ago; he knows little else about it except that it has been his life’s one constant, every day after school and each summer when he played music festivals in the countryside. He took it to Rochester, N.Y., to the Eastman School of Music, and later to Temple University where he earned a master’s degree in cello performance.

He used that same cello for his first professional job playing for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. It was also the cello he used as a teacher, at Dickinson College, then at the University of Nevada and, later, at the University of Puget Sound. He played this cello in operas, ballets, and night clubs. He played auto shows and, once, with Chubby Checker — for a classically trained cellist, that is called making a living.

One of Richmond’s proudest achievements was the Northwest Chamber Orchestra (NWCO), which he founded in 1973. The orchestra, a string ensemble of about 20 musicians, routinely sold out its early shows at the old ACT Theatre as it grew in reputation, attracting nationally recognized soloists and performing all over the world. It lasted longer than Richmond’s own musical career, until 2006, when it was dissolved. The NWCO was the last professional group Richmond played with.

His performance schedule these days, at age 68, is understated. On Monday afternoons he performs, pro bono, for the residents at the Caroline Kline Galland Home, a nursing facility in Seward Park, and occasionally at the Summit at First Hill, another nursing home. Many in his audience have dementia or are bound to wheelchairs, making him acutely aware of his own mortality and the luck of his own health. Even when he is unsure of who is actually listening, he plays as if it were “the last time I was going to play that piece again.”

For a few hours, every other Tuesday afternoon, Richmond performs at the FamilyWorks community center in Wallingford when the organization distributes food from its food bank. At noon, Richmond unpacks his cello and sits down in a folding chair next to the elevator and entrance to the Wallingford branch of the Seattle Public Library, a pocket library housed in the FamilyWorks building.

Richmond’s audience is the gathering line of people waiting for the free groceries that keep them from going hungry. The line often runs out the door and down the block. The food bank dispenses canned and boxed food, produce, milk, cheese, bread, rice, pancake mix, and, if they can help it, a little bit of dignity.

“I think about that,” Richmond said. “What it would be like to be in line to get food, and would a cellist playing make me feel better? I don’t know. It is a very humbling experience. … I always wonder if I’m really needed. But if just one person notices or says something, it’s worth it."

The name Louis Richmond is not unfamiliar to many people in Seattle, and not just because he founded the NWCO. For a brief time, he was the city of Seattle’s “senior music specialist” and as such once hired the then-relatively unknown Kenny G for his first professional gig. Richmond made perhaps a bigger name for himself outside of music, as the founder of a successful company that still bears his name, Richmond Public Relations. The company, now run by his son Lorne Richmond, named after Louis’ former cello teacher, afforded him a comfortable living, which is what he intended when, at the age of 40, he decided to give up playing his cello.

“I wasn’t making very much money as a musician,” he said, “so when I reached 40, I thought ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’  I needed to be more responsible; I needed to make more money, so I thought maybe I could do public relations.”

He was turned down for every job he applied for except one, at the Alexis Hotel. The general manager happened to be from Prague, where classical musicians are held in high regard.

“She found out I was a musician, and that’s why she hired me. It was that simple,”  he said. “She thought I was cool and that I could learn what I need to know. Without that break I wouldn’t have gotten into the business.”

That job led to another in the hotel industry and, later, his own firm, whose success exceeded his expectations. For almost 30 years, he did not even touch his cello, a sacrifice he left unreconciled for years. Last year, he picked up the cello again so he could play a song with his granddaughter, who plays the piano. The two performed at a recital and the experience encouraged him to try performing regularly.

“Ultimately I’m a cellist,” he said. “That’s what I want to say at the end of my life, not that I owned a public-relations firm. I’m a musician. That’s a much higher calling.”

Dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, he began his performance at the food bank with compositions by Georg Telemann, then Alessandro Scarlatti, Bach then Bartok, a lineup he chose so that it could be enjoyed by a “broad” audience, he said. He played without accompaniment, although most of it was written to be performed with a piano. Most music for cello was written for an ensemble, except for the unaccompanied suites by Bach, compositions Richmond has played since he was a teenager.

The people who waited in line for food wore heavy and determined expressions on their faces. Most were older men, with some women and a few children. They picked over boxes of cereal, containers of cottage cheese, bags of lentils, boxes of lettuce, jars of peanut butter. They reached into crates of onions, apples, squash, and carrots. The food was collected by Northwest Harvest and the Food Lifeline, and donated by local grocery stores and restaurants. Churches and schools also contributed food.

Most seemed to barely notice the music. Some applauded; many did not. A few approached Richmond. Timothy Corbin asked him if he played the guitar, too, “because my brother, he says, if you play one instrument, you can play them all.”

“I think we truly do appreciate the music,” Corbin said. “It cuts down on the arguing. With all this waiting, sometimes people get angry. When you hear this music amongst all this trouble, time seems to go by quickly. It’s just more pleasant. … People that come here speak a lot of different languages. The music is one language.”

“It gives the waiting room atmosphere,” another listener said.

The food bank operates on an implied contract of honesty and respect. The people who show up are referred to as clients. They are trusted to take only their share of food without being watched. A police officer monitors the hall, acting as an usher of sorts, but seldom has to exert his authority.

“We treat our clients with dignity and respect,” said Ava Dowell, manager of the food bank.

Although the music might have a calming effect, Dowell said their intention is simply to bring arts into the food bank. Many of their clients, she said, know very well the music Richmond plays.

“The faces of hunger,” Dowell said, “have changed. They are not who you think they are.”

Richmond has been asked detailed questions about what he is playing from people who obviously understand classical music and the cello. Some notice details about his technique or recall an obscure composition.

“It is very humbling,” he said. “It is a strange thing to do. It takes a level of concentration to block everything out. … you’re supposed to do good things, aren’t you?”

For decades, his break from music was complete. Shortly before he started his firm, he turned down an offer of a job in arts administration. He did not want to risk “looking back,” he said.

“I was like a boxer,” Richmond said. “I didn’t want to go back in ring again and get knocked out. I was always afraid that I would be so bad technically that it would defeat me. When I first started to play again, I was horrible; I had lost everything. It was painful or my wife to listen, and even more painful for me.”

About eight years ago, one of Richmond’s former teachers performed in Seattle with The Philadelphia Orchestra. The next morning, Richmond, now a successful businessman, ate breakfast at the Four Seasons hotel with his old teacher, now a venerated cellist.

“He told me, one day you’ll play again,” Richmond said. “I did not think much about it at the time.”

Years later, when he recalled the conversation again, Richmond started to cry.

“Life is made up of compromises,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of compromises. Sometimes it really hurt, sometimes I just pushed it aside. … but I was always a musician.”

This story has been updated to correct the name of the Russian musician Richmond saw trying out an instrument.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.