UNION FAMILIES SERIES The Oliviers: A Double-Reed Dynasty

The Oliviers: A Double-Reed Dynasty


Rufus Olivier Jr. is the principal bassoonist for the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet. He moved to the Bay Area in 1977 after winning an audition for 2nd bassoon for the San Francisco Symphony. When the Symphony split from the Opera, Rufus auditioned for the Opera and won the principal position. In 1992 he won the principal audition for the Ballet. Fast-forward seventeen years: His son, Rufus David, is currently playing in the Opera with him, subbing for the season on 2nd bassoon.

Unionism comes naturally to the Oliviers.

“I’m a union guy,” says Rufus. “I joined Local 47 in the seventies, right out of high school. I grew up in a union house. My father worked for the equivalent of PG&E in LA. He’d come home from the meetings and talk about it. He’d talk about his pension, and when he retired–he had his pension.”

Rufus’s father played the saxophone. He had played in big bands in New Orleans and across the South before moving to Watts. Rufus took up the saxophone as a kid but, in Jr. High, heard The Sound Of Music and fell in love with the sound of the orchestra.
“I switched to bassoon because they were out of oboes,” he says (with a straight face).

With his father’s encouragement, Rufus excelled at the bassoon, and took every opportunity that came his way. Through scholarships, he took private lessons at USC, then won the audition for the LA Philharmonic’s minority student training program. In 1975, the LA Philharmonic’s music director, Zubin Mehta, gave him the chance to play a concerto with the orchestra. After the performance, he offered him a co-principal position. Rufus was 18.

By 1980, Rufus was the youngest principal ever to play in the SF Opera. He also began his teaching career and, over the past thirty years, has taught in most of the music programs in the Bay Area, including Mills College, SF State, The Conservatory of Music, and Stanford, where he is currently on the faculty. He also teaches at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California alongside his mentor, David Breidenthal.


Like Father, Like Son

Rufus David Olivier was born in 1985.

I grew up in the Opera House,” says Rufus David. “I can’t remember not being at the Opera House. It became my second home.”

Rufus David started playing the clarinet at seven years old. He switched to bassoon at age nine after a friend of his fathers passed away and willed his instrument to him. “I studied bassoon with my dad from the very first note,” he recalls. The Oliviers had decided to home- school their two children, which made teaching music easier than it might have been.

“We had the advantage,” says Rufus. ”I had so many of my colleagues say, ‘I can’t teach my kids’. But if you’ve been home-schooled since you were young, you’re open to it. It’s not a strange idea.” But he had to give himself some rules. “I tried to treat him exactly the way I treated the other students. I’m pretty lenient. I don’t pound people into the ground. Just because he’s my kid, I’m not going to pound him into the ground.”

Rufus David always enjoyed playing music as a child, but when he was thirteen he heard a performance of Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto that was a life-changing revelation.
“I was going with my dad to the Midsummer Mozart Music Festival, in Berkeley. They were rehearsing in a church, and I was in the balcony. By the end of the concerto, I decided—I need to do this. Something kind of clicked. Up until then I wanted to be an astronaut.”

Rufus David was home-schooled all the way through high school so he could have the time to dedicate to music. He performed in youth orchestras, including the Fremont Youth Orchestra and Santa Rosa Youth Orchestra, and in many festivals. A very proud moment for him was walking

into his first San Francisco Youth Orchestra rehearsal at the age of 17.


A Dream Fulfilled

Rufus David attended Azusa Pacific University, where he is currently one class away from completing his masters degree in music. When he was 21, he began subbing with the SF Opera and Ballet, and is now subbing for a year with the Opera. “I grew up with many of the people I’m now playing with,” says Rufus David. “At a young age I thought, ‘hopefully one day I’ll get to do that,’ but you know—slim pickin’s! Now I’m sitting there looking up at a standing ovation crowd. It’s definitely a dream come true.”

On Joining Local 6:

Rufus David: When I started playing professionally, joining Local 6 was the obvious thing to do. I talked to my dad about it. He said, “You’re ready to join up, it’s time.” I joined about a year ago.

Any benefits?

Rufus David: “Only recently I’ve seen how beneficial it is first hand. A few years ago I was playing as a college student. Going to the professional setting that the AFM and Local 6 have provided is a huge and very obvious step up. For one, things are timely—you’re paid on-time. People see you as a professional. They can’t just take advantage of you as an employee. If rehearsal is over at 2:00pm, it’s over at 2:00pm. We don’t go to 2:05 or 2:10. There’s no “Oh, we’ll just go a few more minutes.” I’ve been in rehearsals that weren’t union that went 2-3 hours over because the conductor felt like it.”

Rufus: “Most of the time, the union comes in when there’s a problem. One of the changes that came about in the eighties was we got to hire our own lawyer. That was a good change. Local 6, unlike LA, is more like a family setting. You walk through the door and they know who you are.”

Rufus David: “Even before I joined, when I was at the Opera House, I would see representatives from Local 6 standing up for the musicians. I’ve talked to my dad about negotiation meetings, and it’s very obvious that Local 6 is a very big presence. I know without union representation it would be a very different world for musicians. So I have a very big appreciation for what Local 6 has done.”