Violinist Joe Striplin honored for decades with DSO

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Concertgoers in the last few years cannot have failed to notice the changing face of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It's younger — a lot younger. Owing to a spate of retirements, the old guard has given way to a new generation of musicians.

But there's one face in the violin section that's as familiar as a visage on Mt. Rushmore. Joseph Striplin (or Joe, as he's known to his colleagues) has been making music with the DSO since 1972.

Only one other DSO musician, bassist Stephen Edwards, has equal seniority, but Striplin playfully remarks, "I'm older than he is. I'm the Methuselah of the orchestra."

Apparently, age has its rewards. Striplin will be honored along with Judge Damon J. Keith in a black-tie celebration reception prior to the Classical Roots program on Saturday.

The DSO's annual Classical Roots concerts began 37 years ago to showcase African-American composers and performers. This weekend's performances include works by William Grant Still, George Walker, Duke Ellington and others.

Striplin, who has been married to pianist wife Dana since 1979, also holds the distinction of being the DSO's first African-American member.

A lot has changed for the better since 1972 regarding opportunities for minority musicians, Striplin says, and he credits the DSO's efforts to encourage and groom those players. He cites the Classical Roots presentations and the African-American Orchestral Fellowship Program, which mentors young black professional musicians. And, of course, the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, committed to the development of African-American and Latino classical musicians.

"When I was a young man, I knew very few advanced black classical musicians. Now there are many," Striplin says.

"You see a lot of capable black musicians from high school level to professional organizations, and they're spreading the gospel of classical music in the black community."

A native Detroiter, Striplin grew up near Grand River and McGraw on Wreford Street, in the shadow of Olympia Stadium. He attended Cass Technical High School and touts his experience there in the school's orchestra.

"We had some of the best players around," Striplin recalls. "I heard the kind of playing that really made me want to pursue this field, and I was introduced to music I never knew existed."

Striplin advanced to Wayne State University, where he caught the conducting bug studying with Valter Poole, a DSO violist who also served as the orchestra's associate conductor. Through the years, Striplin has held several conducting posts and today is music director of the Grosse Pointe Symphony Orchestra.

Striplin also values his yearlong private study with DSO violinist Jack Boesen. "He was a critical player in my development," Striplin says. "He thought I had something and believed I could make a career in performing. I can't say enough about how much he did for me."

Soon Striplin was on his way. He became a member of the Metropolitan Opera National Company Orchestra, then joined the Indianapolis Symphony. In 1968 he began a four-year stint with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

"My first year in St. Louis was also the first year for a young assistant conductor, and his name was Leonard Slatkin," Striplin remembers. Slatkin, then just 24, would later become music director of the St. Louis Symphony and, in 2008, music director of the DSO.

Since coming on board with the DSO, Striplin has served under six music directors — Sixten Ehrling, Aldo Ceccato, Antal Dorati, Gunther Herbig, Neeme Jarvi and Slatkin. He recalls the Dorati years as being particularly colorful. Dorati took the orchestra on its first European tour in 1979 and made some celebrated recordings during his tenure. But the Hungarian conductor had a notoriously short fuse.

"I remember one incident in which he got very angry at the orchestra and threw a Mahler score straight ahead without caring where it went," Striplin says. "After a break, no one knew what to expect. He says, 'Well, I lost my temper, but now I found it!' "

Striplin chuckles at the memory. "It just shows that although he had a temper, he also had charm."

'Classical Roots'

10:45 a.m. Friday,

8 p.m. Saturday

Orchestra Hall in the Max M. Fisher Music Center

3711 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets $15-$100

Celebration tickets, $75-$500, include concert, strolling dinner, dessert and afterglow;

begin at 5:30 p.m. Saturday

(313) 576-5111