(Bill Brett/Globe Staff)
Charles Ansbacher, the founding conductor of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, whose free concerts at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade and in many city neighborhoods brought live classical music to thousands of Bostonians, died Sunday night at his home in Cambridge.
The cause was a brain tumor, according to a spokeswoman for the orchestra. He was 67.
Mr. Ansbacher was a firm believer in the power of music to lift individual spirits regardless of one's background while also strengthening the bonds of civic life. His populism seemed indistinguishable from his love for the art form itself. He once told an interviewer: "Classical music for me is simply a thing of beauty ... that everybody should have the opportunity to enjoy."
His faith in music's ability to forge or repair community led him to guest conduct far outside the typical circuit. He worked with orchestras in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Macedonia, Moldova, and Uzbekistan and held positions with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, the Bishkek Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Kyrgyzstan, and the Sarajevo Philharmonic.
But locally, he was best known for the summer concerts at the Hatch Shell in which he led an orchestra of freelance musicians in accessible programs designed to bring pleasure equally to lifelong music-lovers and uninitiated fans, to schoolchildren and to the passing cyclist.
"Charles's commitment to restoring community, his warmth and capacity for empathy, and his love of music all came together in the Boston Landmarks Orchestra," said Governor Deval Patrick. "What a gift he was to our community."
Mayor Thomas Menino echoed those sentiments: "Charles Ansbacher has added so much to the cultural life of the city since his arrival to Boston. His dedication to music and our parks was tremendous and he will be sorely missed. We are all grateful that his legacy will live on through the Boston Landmarks Orchestra."
When he founded the orchestra, in 2000, Mr. Ansbacher placed the word "landmarks" in its title to signal his belief in the "synergy," as he often called it, between music and location -- or in other words, between the power of the arts to deepen one's sense of place.
In addition to its Esplanade series, the Landmarks Orchestra has given concerts in several local Boston neighborhoods and against the backdrop of various iconic New England sites. Each year the group typically commissions a new family-friendly work on quintessential local subjects or institutions, such as "Make Way for Ducklings," Old Ironsides, John Adams, and the Red Sox.
In July Mr. Ansbacher and a longtime colleague, the conductor Christopher Wilkins, led the first symphonic program ever to take place in Fenway Park. 15,000 free tickets to the event were claimed in four days. In an intermission interview with WCRB-FM, Ansbacher spoke of his approach to democratizing the arts. He said he hoped "to limit barriers that keep people from knowing and learning and eventually loving orchestral music." That desire, according Wilkins, was vintage Ansbacher.
"I've always been inspired by Charles's gut-level instinct to guide musicians toward a wider purpose, a bigger role beyond just making music and giving concerts," Wilkins said. "We all know that music is a healing art but we don't often treat it that way, and we don't often deliver it to the people can use the most healing. Charles would look for the places and the people who needed it the most. And then the most exciting thing was to see the results."
According to Jeff Makholm, chairman of the board of the Landmarks Orchestra, the ensemble will continue its work in the coming years, and a new conductor will eventually be appointed as artistic director. "Boston has indeed lost a rare sort of friend," he said, "but it will not lose what he wanted to give to Boston."
Mr. Ansbacher was born in Providence and grew up largely in Vermont. His parents, Heinz Ludwig and Rowena (Ripin) Ansbacher, were both German-born psychologists with deep expertise in the theories of Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Freud. Mr. Ansbacher studied music at Brown University and the University of Cincinnati, and eventually became music director of the Colorado Springs Symphony, a position he held for almost two decades, through most of the 1970s and 80s.
During that period he also developed his public policy interests, serving as a White House Fellow and co-chairing a US Department of Transportation task force that advocated for the use of federal funds to build a presence for the arts within the mass transit system.
It was also during his time in Colorado that he met Swanee Hunt, whom he later married and accompanied to Vienna when Hunt was appointed US ambassador to Austria. There he worked as a guest conductor, and began his relationship with the Sarajevo Philharmonic.
Upon arriving in Boston in the late 1990s, Mr. Ansbacher was surprised to see how little classic music was performed in the city during the summer months. Those with the time and resources could travel to bucolic summer music festivals, but he argued that those without such opportunities still deserved the chance to hear live concerts.
The Landmarks Orchestra's own presentations grew steadily in number and reach over their first decade, with this year's series drawing an average weekly crowd of some 8,000 listeners to the Esplanade.
Mr. Ansbacher, often clad in one of his signature vests, did not shy away from presenting demanding concert works like Verdi's Requiem in al fresco settings but he also tended to favor a fast-vanishing repertoire of light classics and Americana. In what seemed a characteristic gesture, he lobbied to have the name of Leroy Anderson, who composed "Sleigh Ride" and countless light concert tunes, added to the list of composers inscribed at the Hatch Shell alongside the likes of Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert.
Mr. Ansbacher is survived by his wife, Ambassador Swanee Hunt of Cambridge; his brothers Max of New York City, Ted of White Plains, N.Y., and Ben of Burlington, N.C. ; his children, Henry Ansbacher and Lillian Shuff of Denver, Colo., and Theodore Ansbacher-Hunt of North Adams; and grandchildren Max, Alex, and Ella of Denver. His prior marriage, to Barbara Ann Ansbacher, who died in 1987, ended in divorce.
The funeral will be private but a memorial concert will be held at a later date.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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