Friends and colleagues are remembering former Greenville Symphony music director Peter Rickett as an inspirational force who took a fledgling musical ensemble and transformed it into a major regional orchestra.
Rickett, 91, the orchestra's longest-serving conductor, died Monday near his home in Peoria, Ariz.
Rickett, a professional double bass player who taught at Furman University, led the Greenville Symphony Orchestra for 34 years, from 1956 to 1990.
"Peter was a great fellow, a talented musician and a gifted conductor," said Bob Howard, who served on the orchestra's board in the 1980s and would later become its executive director, from 1999 to 2008. "I believe Peter Rickett was the foundation upon which today's Greenville Symphony was built."
Rickett was hired as the then-8-year-old orchestra's first resident conductor in 1956 for the princely sum of $1,200 a year.
Under Rickett's leadership, the Greenville Symphony grew into a more fully professional ensemble, expanding its season and increasing the size of the orchestra while paying musicians higher wages.
The orchestra, performing mostly at Furman's McAlister Auditorium, also added concerts of popular music and established music festivals dedicated to the works of one composer, such as Mozart.
"It was Peter who told us we could do a music festival if we put our minds to it," said Karen Lawton, who served as president of the Greenville Symphony board during the 1980s. "People in other orchestras were were amazed at what we were able to do, and I think a lot of us rolled up our sleeves and did what we needed to do because of Peter Rickett. He inspired us to do creative things. You wanted to make the orchestra better because of Peter."
Rickett also established some of the orchestra's traditions that continue today, such as Independence Day concerts (with cannons) and a chamber music series of smaller-scale performances.
"We decided that chamber music was missing from Greenville, so we started the chamber series in churches," Lawton said. "Peter was always open and willing to try new things."
Among Rickett's many honors, he was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, the state's highest civilian honor, by then-Gov. Richard Riley in 1987.
In 1988, then-Gov. Carroll Campbell presented him with the Elizabeth O'Neill Verner Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.
At his retirement from the Greenville Symphony in 1990, Rickett was named Conductor Emeritus.
"There are so many people who played a role in Greenville to make it the incredible town it is today," Lawton said. "Without any doubt, he was one of those rare people who put his brick in place to make the foundation of Greenville what it is today."
Respected by musicians
Rickett, as a musician and teacher himself, was especially respected by the orchestra's musicians, said his son, David Rickett.
"He was a musician's conductor," David Rickett said. "He always had the musicians' best interests in mind. He was also a teacher to a lot of people, so everywhere I went people always said, 'How's your Dad? He was my teacher.'
"He was a great guy," Rickett added. "Everybody looked up to him."
Peter Rickett and Greenville Chorale conductor Bing Vick worked together to create annual Christmas concerts in Greenville — the forerunners of the Chorale's popular Yuletide performances at Furman and the orchestra's Holiday at Peace concerts.
"I can remember Peter and me sitting down at lunch and outlining a Christmas concert," Vick said. "The symphony had not done a big Christmas concert until then."
Vick said that Rickett raised the orchestra's musical standards by embracing challenging repertoire — such as Mahler's Second Symphony and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 — while being involved in all aspects of running of the orchestra, including setting up chairs, drums and music stands.
"Peter over years improved the quality of the players and attracted new players, did the scheduling and conducted all the concerts," Vick said. "He did a lot of the behind-the-scenes work to make the symphony what it became.
"In addition to everything else, he was just a real gentleman, a very positive person," Vick added.
Rickett retired to the Phoenix area from South Carolina in 1994 as a way to continue his music career part time and devote himself to another passion, golf, said David Rickett.
In Arizona, Rickett was assistant conductor under James Yestadt of the Sun Cities Symphony and played double bass with that orchestra for 10 years. He was also conductor of the Sun Cities String Orchestra.
Born to American parents in Paris, France, where his father was working, Rickett grew up in New York City.
He received his early musical training from his father, a professional musician and conductor of the Blue Hill Troupe, a Gilbert & Sullivan company in New York. His mother, Joanna Roos, was a stage actress who also appeared in movies and television.
Rickett graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in 1946. He met his wife Betsie, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., over a bridge table in 1950 in New York City.
It was "love at six diamonds," said David Rickett.
Rickett was with the New Orleans, Dallas and Chattanooga Symphonies, both as a bass player and conductor, before taking the helm of the fledgling Greenville Symphony in 1956.
He performed as a bassist with many of the orchestras in the Southeast and guest conducted the Columbia, Charlotte, Asheville and Charleston symphonies. He was the music director of the Greenville Savoyards, a Gilbert & Sullivan group in Greenville.
He also served 13 years as the conductor of the Hendersonville (N.C.) Symphony.
Furman University, where he served as a part-time faculty member, awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in 1986.
Rickett is survived by his wife of 61 years, Betsie, his daughters Deborah Horvay and Christine Alley, and son David Rickett. He is survived also by two grandchildren, Kevin and Greg Horvay, and two great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his son Steve Rickett.
The family asks that memorial gifts be sent in his memory to the Greenville Symphony (200 S. Main St., Greenville, SC 29601). Donations also may be made to the Hospice of Arizona Foundation (19820 N. 7th Avenue, #130, Phoenix, AZ 85027).
Funeral services were pending at press time.