Critic's Notebook: Remembering a Tanglewood Music Center champion

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LENOX — Richard Ortner left Tanglewood under duress, but in a sense he never left.

Ortner spent 23 years on the Tanglewood staff, the last 12 of them as the highly regarded administrator of the Tanglewood Music Center. He helped to get Ozawa Hall built and oversaw student instruction and performance activities, including the influential Festival of Contemporary Music, that continue to this day in enhanced form. The Boston Symphony Orchestra will remember him with a celebration of his life. He died of cancer at 71 on Oct. 10.

"After he left the BSO," recalls his close friend Anthony Fogg, the BSO's artistic administrator and director of Tanglewood, "Richard spent about a year looking for a new position. He considered a number of possibilities, some out of the music field. Then, unexpectedly, he was approached about the presidency of the Boston Conservatory. This was the beginning of a glorious new - and for him unexpected - phase of Richard's career."

Recalling Ortner's joy in "good music, food and conversation," the BSO will offer them in a memorial celebration and reception at noon on Nov. 16 in Symphony Hall, Boston. The public — meaning especially all those whose lives Ortner touched, according to Fogg — is invited. (RSVP by Friday at bsorsvp@bso.org.)

The celebration will recall a life of personal and institutional loyalties.

Originally recommended to Tanglewood by Leonard Bernstein, Ortner was the first of four TMC leaders whom then-BSO music director Seiji Ozawa forced out in 1996-97, accusing them of forming a clique against him. Ortner went on to serve as conservatory president from 1998 until retirement in 2017.

Drawing on his Tanglewood experience, he expanded the conservatory's music, theater and dance programs and created programs in special-needs music teacher training. Under his aegis, the conservatory merged with the nearby Berklee College of Music and expanded and improved facilities, including addition of four new dance studios.

In an email recounting their 25-year friendship, Fogg said he had only sporadically attended opera, orchestra and theater performances before at the conservatory, but became a regular when his friend took over. Ortner, Fogg said, "made BoCo a real musical force in town - everyone paid attention to what BoCo was doing."

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Conservatory students took part in Boston Pops musical theater programs, and the BSO and conservatory shared many board members, "whose devotion to Richard," Fogg said, "was palpable." Ortner himself served on boards of other musical and cultural organizations. Conclusion of the merger with Berklee, "Richard's great last act, was inspiring in its vision and determination," Fogg recalled.

The 1996-97 TMC upheaval sparked a widely publicized faculty split, with such prominent musicians as TMC artistic director Leon Fleisher and faculty chairman Gilbert Kalish openly criticizing Ozawa as compromising the institution. Both men, along with Tanglewood manager Daniel Gustin and Ortner, were ousted by Ozawa.

After that "dark exit" from the BSO, Fogg wrote, Ortner "shone. The Conservatory job drew on the best of Richard's extraordinary range of talents: his very catholic musical tastes (musical theater to contemporary classical), his skills with building projects, his wisdom towards young musicians, his great imagination. Ironically, leaving the TMC was the catalyst for a brilliant next phase of his career and life."

Time had a healing effect.

"Richard came to a number concerts at Tanglewood after he left — not immediately, but in time, including FCM concerts," Fogg recalled. "He donated a tree in his parents' memory and was thrilled by the creation of the Linde Center, which he said felt like a continuation of the work he'd done on the building of Ozawa Hall."

He planned to spend most of his retirement at his house in Canaan, N.Y., Fogg said. His last big projects at the property were creation of a swimming pond and raised vegetable beds.

And, Fogg said, when Ozawa brought his Saito Kinen Orchestra to Boston on tour several years ago, "Richard graciously hosted Seiji," providing rehearsal space at the conservatory for a few days.

"Richard remained a very close friend over 25 years and I saw him on a regular basis, even though both our schedules were hectic," Fogg concluded. "I had a lovely visit with him about 10 days before he passed away and he was full of questions about the Tanglewood season and the TLI [Tanglewood Learning Institute]. His eyes were full of life and, typically, he was more interested in what was going on in my work and at the BSO than he was about his own grave condition."                                                                                               

Fogg saw him briefly the day before he died, "and he was clearly struggling though still gracious." The legacy remains.

Fogg saw him briefly the day before he died, "and he was clearly struggling though still gracious." The legacy remains.


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