Feeding the Spirit: Charles Ansbacher ’65

By Zachary Block '99 / September / October 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Some people carefully construct careers; others improvise as they go. Conductor Charles Ansbacher was forced into the latter path after President Clinton appointed his wife, Swannie Hunt, as U.S. ambassador to Austria. The move, he notes, left him “underemployed” after having led the Colorado Springs Orchestra for two decades. He found part-time work with the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, then was eventually invited to conduct the Sarajevo Philharmonic, which was struggling to survive the Balkan war.

But thanks in part to Ansbacher, survive they did. The orchestra rehearsed in the unheated National Theatre; when the power would fail, musicians pulled out their cigarette lighters to illuminate the room, pack up their instruments, and head home. “I remember going on stage and someone had put a sign seriously on the curtain that said ‘No weapons on stage,’ ” he recalls. The musicians suffered from numerous physical ailments, and their instruments were in serious disrepair. Still, they played on. The experience, Ansbacher says, reaffirmed his faith in the importance of art. “Their physical needs were, in a way, hopeless,” he says, “but you can still feed the soul and you can feed the spirit.”

The orchestra’s first performance after the war was broadcast on national television on New Year’s Eve. The orchestra made a point of inviting the energy minister, thus helping guarantee that electricity flowed through the entire show. “It was kind of an announcement that life was getting back to normal,” Ansbacher says of the performance.

Growing up in Burlington, Vermont, the son of noted psychologists, Ansbacher turned to music as a way to distinguish himself from his hyper-scholastic siblings. He launched his conducting career at Brown, forming his own orchestra of fellow students. At first they performed in dorm lounges, but as their popularity grew, the musicians were able to fill Sayles Hall.

In 1997, when Hunt was recruited to lead the Center for Women and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Ansbacher dutifully followed his wife yet again. He says he was soon troubled to find that Boston offered little in the way of free classical music, and hardly any music outdoors during the summer. Two years ago Ansbacher decided to create a new orchestra with the mission of bringing accessible classical music to communities where symphonies don’t normally venture. He named it the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and stocked it with musicians from the Boston Ballet, the Boston Lyric Opera, and the Boston Pops.

This summer the orchestra performed forty-three free concerts, up from eight in 2001 and twenty-five in 2002, including the world premieres of four works commissioned by Ansbacher. Eventually, Ansbacher hopes the orchestra will become a Boston institution, just like the historical places the group commemorates in its name. “I hope,” he says, “that we’ll outlive me.”

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September / October 2003