Charles Ansbacher paid us a visit last weekend.
Charles cut quite figure in Colorado Springs a while back. When I first came to town he was our neighbor up the street, conducting the Colorado Springs Symphony in the Palmer High School auditorium. He was the symphony's conductor for nearly two decades. It's thanks to Charles (and his terrific cohorts, Bee Vrandenburg, Kathleen Collins, Phil Kendall and others) that the symphony grew and prospered, and that the Pikes Center was created and built. Charles was the real face of the arts in our town, beaming brightly in our newspapers nearly every week. It was almost too much: everywhere I looked there was Charles #$%** Ansbacher. I sometimes wished there might be room for someone else--a young theatre guy for instance.
Charles did not limit himself to conducting our orchestra and building our principal auditorium. He was a White House fellow; he hob nobbed with the vice president and the transportation secretary sat on his lap. He served on the blue ribbon committee responsible for the state of the art Denver International Airport. After leaving Colorado Springs, he spent some time with his distinguished wife Swanee Hunt in Vienna (she was Clinton's ambassador to Austria). He flew in under armed escort to conduct the orchestra in war torn Sarajevo. And not incidentally he founded the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, composed primarily of the best free lance musicians in Boston, playing outdoors in public places. It's fair to say that Charles has been busy.
He might be a little less busy in the near future. He recently learned that he has a brain tumor, and that it is malignant. The prognosis is not so good. When he came to town last weekend most of us realized we might be seeing him for the last time. Kathleen Collins arranged a reception for him over at Scott O'Malley's place, and 50 of Charles' best friends came over to see him in on a snowy afternoon. It was a great crowd. After a little food and drink, we were invited into the small theater to listen to Charles to talk.
I might add that Charles has made a habit of coming into town two or three times a decade. And when he has come, Kathleen has always seen to it that the maestro has had the opportunity to speak to a gathering of those who know him, and tell us what he's been up to (a lot, always). But this time, of course, was a little different.
There was Charles sitting on Scott O'Malley's stage in the Western Jubilee Warehouse--an unlikely site for a conductor of classical music. The room is small. The walls are covered with Scott's affectionate memorabilia: posters, pennants, quilts, tons of guitars, old radios. The room is a kind of shrine to old time country and western music. Charles is neither. But for this occasion the room was just right: warm and very personal, glowing.
Charles began by telling us in a concise and dispassionate way about his condition and treatment. Following his diagnosis they had operated by cutting a manhole cover in the side of his skull, lifting it up and removing the tumor. The operation, he said, had not disturbed the cognitive functions of his brain. But it may have removed some of the brain that is connected to the emotions. That was all right, Charles said, because he has always thought of himself as a mostly rational kind of person anyway.
He then told us his prognosis, as far as it can be known (never perfectly), and quoted Samuel Johnson saying "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Everything that followed gave proof of Johnson's wisdom.
Charles gracefully and economically summarized his working life here and afterwards. He began by saying he had been born in privileged circumstances--and that his good fortune had helped him make the best use of the gifts he had. He told us Beethoven was his favorite composer,because Beethoven was brave, strong, well organized and never sentimental-- unlike the French, he said, with a twinkle in the direction of Larry Smith who had just finished conducting a program of French music in the house that Charles built. He took some questions following his brief talk, and accepted some compliments as well.
I listened to everything Charles said, and everything he said was spoken with grace,and good humor, and great charm--- all Charles trademarks. But there was something quite special about this performance, a complete honesty and transparency of presence. Charles had no agenda, nothing to sell this time. He was, all there, wonderfully all there. He's lost a little weight, and is just a little more fragile, but that only makes him look more quintessentially himself--his fine features are finer, his face was becoming a master drawing. There was no evidence of emotional disconnection. On the contrary every single thing he said and did was suffused with feeling, without ever once becoming maudlin. I had never seen Charles like this; I have almost never seen anyone like this.
Charles has given hundreds of concerts in his life, and spoken well to thousands. But I venture to say that his little talk to friends last weekend was the performance of a lifetime. It was a privilege to witness. There's nothing like a fine man come home, all of him right there.