Maestro Charles Ansbacher died on September 12, 2010 at his home on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although knowing for the past 13 months he had an incurable brain tumor, he courageously continued his life’s mission of bringing free orchestral music to diverse audiences. Even after he was diagnosed, he conducted for more than 100,000 people, including–with his Landmarks Orchestra–the first-ever symphony orchestra concert in Boston’s Fenway Park and the 2010 season of Beethoven on the Charles River Esplanade. He also traveled to Hanoi, and was the first-ever American to lead the Vietnam National Symphony. In addition, the maestro made return performances in such faraway places as Sarajevo, Bosnia; Beirut, Lebanon; and Chisinau, Moldova; and also shared his music close to home at Harvard’s Sanders Theater.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, on October 5, 1942, Ansbacher took up cello as a boy and began by conducting a Mahler piece with his high school orchestra in Burlington, Vermont. His parents, noted Adlerian psychologists Drs. Heinz L. and Rowena Ripin Ansbacher, encouraged his study by sending him to Greenwood Music Camp and Tanglewood. He majored in physics at Brown University but switched to music after creating a successful chamber orchestra with his classmates. He studied music at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio and at the Mozarteum in Austria. His brother, Max Ansbacher said:
It couldn’t have been easy for Charles to come into the world with three older brothers who were bigger and stronger and thought they were smarter. But he thrived. His potential was already apparent in the second grade when he became the unofficial leader of his class, and this tradition continued right through high school with his election as class president. His interest in music began in earnest when our parents spent the 1955 academic year in Germany; at the age of 13 Charles was introduced to the cello and a superb cello teacher. The rest is history.
I remember countless times coming home to find him practicing the cello or playing with the chamber music group that he organized in high school. He was also an excellent skier and could probably have made the varsity football team but he decided instead to make music his principal avocation. At his high school graduation he was the first student ever to be given the honor of conducting the orchestra which had always been done by the music teacher. He was a great friend and a wonderful brother; my life and those of my two brothers and our parents were immeasurably enriched by his enthusiasm and ideals.
After short stints teaching and conducting, he moved to Colorado, where he helped build not only the Colorado Springs Symphony but also the acoustically superior Pikes Peak Performing Center. Phil Kendall, former president of the Colorado Springs Symphony Board said:
As the conductor and music director of the Colorado Springs Symphony his most obvious contribution was building a superb ensemble. His life’s mission of bringing free orchestral music to diverse audiences began when he helped inspire the summer symphonies in the parks in Colorado Springs where tens of thousands attended every summer, many experiencing orchestral music for the first time. It was exciting and most fulfilling for all of us who considered ourselves on Charles’ team. He was the brilliant strategist behind the construction of the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts, a versatile concert hall with unparalleled acoustics.
He involved himself deeply and broadly in many aspects of Colorado Springs future, often appearing before City Council to urge thoughtful and visionary planning for our community. His visions were bold; he inspired me along with many others to take on challenges we would otherwise have shunned. He instilled confidence in all who worked with him. He had brilliant focus and an indefatigable drive, but at the same time was a wonderfully warm and dear friend to many. He has indeed left a lasting legacy on our community. He will be sorely missed as a community force, but more significantly as a dear friend.
In 1976, Maestro Ansbacher took a leave of absence and moved to Washington, D. C., where he served as special assistant to the secretary of transportation, and in the White House with “Joan of Arts” Mondale, wife of the vice president. There, he was influential in pushing forward a bill allowing a percentage of federal funds for mass transit projects to be spent on the arts. Gail Klapper, former White House Fellow, said:
I told everyone that Charles was selected by the department of transportation because they needed a "conductor." Charles made major contributions during his Fellowship year, finding creative ways to install art in subway systems and other sites that needed the aesthetic lift he envisioned. He brought enormous energy to that task and created a lasting legacy. Every member of our class of White House Fellows – 15 in number – adored Charles. He was smart, energetic, inspiring, and genuinely nice. He lifted the spirits of everyone he touched. He will be greatly missed.
Ansbacher returned to Colorado where his interest in design and architecture led to the appointment by Federico Peña, Denver’s first Hispanic mayor, to the Blue Ribbon Committee for the design of the new Denver International Airport. Roy Romer, governor of Colorado, also selected him as chair of the state’s Council on the Arts and Humanities. In 2010 Mayor Hickenlooper dedicated the Charles Ansbacher Hall, which connects the terminal with Concourse A, in recognition of the maestro’s involvement in the airport’s planning. At that ceremony, Peña pointed out that a billion travelers have had their spirits lifted by the majestic and whimsical touches the maestro embedded in the project. Mayor of Denver, John W. Hickenlooper, said:
This is…the largest, most comprehensive public art project of any airport on earth. It’s certainly the most provocative, the most transformational… Ansbacher has enriched every place he has been by his own vision and his willingness to give of himself back to the community.
In an interview with Ansbacher for the Brown Alumni Magazine, Zachary Block reported, “Ansbacher had to improvise his career path after President Clinton appointed his wife, Swanee Hunt, as US ambassador to Austria in 1993. The move left him ‘underemployed.’” Unpacking his baton, he used the opportunity to carry musical inspiration from his new base in Vienna, where he conducted the finest orchestras in the finest halls, to states suffering from imploded economies and war. President Clinton once called Ansbacher “the unofficial ambassador of America’s music.” Bosnian refugee and longtime colleague, Mirsad Jacevic, said:
Maestro Ansbacher was a true hero for the people of Sarajevo, and of all Bosnia. He brought music back to a city wounded by war and destruction. Maestro revitalized our decimated Philharmonic, literally. He brought the needed instruments, new scores, and materials, and trained the players who for three years worked hard to survive (12 of the original 80 did not). He took the Orchestra to its many international performances. More importantly, he kept coming back (25 times in all) and was named Principal Guest Conductor, a rare honor. He performed Beethoven's Ninth, proclaiming "Alle Menschen werden Bruder…" (“All people will be brothers”). In truth, that was his message and his legacy in Bosnia: he replaced hatred and hurt with compassion and love for all, making us feels part of the human family. Through his music, in a place where 3,000 children were killed, many a Bosnian heart was healed. For that, my city and country will remain forever grateful.
While in the course of his career, Maestro Ansbacher led major orchestras in more than 40 countries, in the past 15 years he focused his international work on countries in economic or political transition, such as Colombia, Kyrgyzstan, and Serbia. In 2004, he conducted the world premiere of the Mandela Portrait in Johannesburg, South Africa. The next year he led the Jerusalem Symphony with Palestinian soloist Saleem Abboud Ashkar. In Russia, the Moscow Symphony named Maestro Ansbacher guest conductor. In addition to pieces by Beethoven, Copland, and other major composers, that orchestra recorded four new works for children commissioned by Landmarks: Make Way for Ducklings, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, The Journey of Phyllis Wheatley, and Lifting the Curse: The Story of the Red Sox.
Uncharacteristically for conductors, Ansbacher served on many boards of directors throughout his career, often with organizations unrelated to music. Such boards included the World Affairs Council and Urban League in Colorado Springs; the Public Education Coalition in Denver; and in his last adopted city, GlobalPost, First Night, Commonwealth School, and the International Institute of Boston. For 25 years, he served as treasurer of Hunt Alternatives Fund, a private family foundation.
His final foray into public policy and the arts was the creation of the Free for All Concert Fund, to raise a $20 million portfolio to support in perpetuity outdoor orchestral concerts and related activities that are accessible and friendly to families from every neighborhood in the Boston area.
Ambassador Swanee Hunt, the maestro’s wife of 25 years, said:
Concerts, audience members, and passengers can be counted, but the impact of his ideas is incalculable. He imagined opportunities where others saw barriers. How many of us have dreamed bolder dreams, reached unimaginably farther, because of his stubborn encouragement and prodding? Our work is an extension of his work – no, of his life.
He will long be cherished by his family: his children—Henry Ansbacher, Lillian Shuff, and Theodore Ansbacher-Hunt; his grandchildren—Alex, Max, and Ella Ansbacher; and his brothers—Max, Benjamin, and Theodore.
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