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A day to put in the folder marked 'incomparable'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 31, 2011 - Our friend Richard Ashburner died at age 57 on March 18. He was a beloved and revered member of the staff of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, where he worked closely with chorus director Amy Kaiser as manager of the Symphony's formidable chorus. If you haven't heard the chorus lately, make tracks to do so. And remember as you listen that Richard Ashburner left a special mark on it, a blend of artistic rigor and humane sensitivity.

We at the Beacon have a particular appreciation of Richard and his talents. In collaboration with Kaiser, he helped us present a concert version of "H.M.S. Pinafore" at the Sheldon Concert Hall earlier this year as part of our annual winter fund-raising effort. They brought much-needed professionalism to the planning and execution of the show. As our program noted, the Beacon's musical ship would have taken on water and sunk like a stone without them.

Richard got a kick out of his involvement with us and with Gilbert and Sullivan's wacky-wonderful operetta. He not only worked on the production behind the scenes but also contributed his tenor voice to the Pinafore chorus. At the funeral Mass at the College Church on March 22, his brother, David, spoke of Richard's vocal talent and aspirations, and how as a young man he took on the demanding role of Rodolfo in "La Boheme," and nailed it. We cherish the notion that his being such an essential part of "Pinafore" brought him happiness and, perhaps, added to his already long list of accomplishments.

Cellist Bjorn Ranheim is a member of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and thus a colleague of Ashburner. He is one of the brightest and best of the symphonic ensemble, and last week, on March 22, the evening following Ashburner's funeral, he demonstrated his virtuosity playing J.S. Bach's Suite No. 3 in C Major in a concert presented by the St. Louis Chamber Music Society.

The concert, which also included work by Jean-Baptiste Loeillet, Henry Purcell, Pietro Antonio Fiocco, Baldassare Galuppo and Frederick the Great's flute teacher, Johann Joachim Quantz, was dedicated to Ashburner, as will be the Symphony's performances of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 on April 8, 9 and 10.

The chamber music concert was an amazing occasion, by turns bittersweet, serious, hilarious, solemn, effervescent and consistently splendid. But as Ranheim played music that has drawn such celebrated artists to it as Casals, Rostropovich and Ma, the artistic temperature of the room began to rise and the evening took on a special radiance.

Virtuosity, like genius, is difficult to describe with any certitude. You have to be there, to brush up against it metaphorically, to experience it thoroughly. You must to feel it viscerally, not simply know it intellectually. And being there allows you to see it manifest itself. And in the instance of Ranheim's performance last week, an audience member of the Chamber Music Society could see as well, hear and feel an artist produce music of beauty that surpasses understanding.

Ranheim has a good career going for him already, not only with the colossus at Grand and Delmar but also in appearances on other platforms around the country and internationally. He is a devotee of contemporary music and put his devotion on stage in the concert series presented by the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, for example. But it was with the music of the Baroque last week where Ranheim played with such transcendent artistry that he became one with his cello and with Bach's music, and took many of us musical places we'd not been before.

This occurred on a day that many, many people spent reflecting on the fragility and transitory nature of life itself. Music is often said to be a balm, but that is to minimize its strengths and to misunderstand its efficacy. Rather than alleviating suffering it strengthens our will to face it with courage. Many compositions takes us on a journey rather like the one we take through life itself. Both have conclusions. Music is neither medicine nor magic, it is art. And art was very much in action at that concert.

Still in its youth both in age and spirit, the Chamber Music Society concluded its 2010-11 season with the Ashburner concert, which featured not only Ranheim but also brought together the celebrated conductor Nicholas McGegan at the harpsichord, Symphony second flute Jennifer Nitchman and Marc Gordon, the society's founder, impresario and maestro, playing the oboe. 

It was Gordon who perceived a desire for chamber ensemble concerts among music lovers in St. Louis. He found in the Kranzberg Arts Center an appropriate place for performing, and in 2008 began presenting seasons that have become noted for the variety of their programs and the dedication of the presenters to excellence.

That commitment was evident on March 22, a day of sadness and of celebration, a day to put in the folder marked "incomparable," thanks in so many ways to the ministrations of great music. The Chamber Music Society will be back again next year, and for that we should be very, very grateful.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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