Boston Globe article about the career of Ralph Gomberg

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Home Forums Announcements Double Reeds in the News Boston Globe article about the career of Ralph Gomberg

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    Delmar Williams


    By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff | December 13, 2006

    Ralph Gomberg , who as principal oboist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 37 years was an integral part of what many listeners considered the greatest jewel in the BSO’s crown, its legendary woodwind section, died Saturday at Wayside Hospice , in Wayland.

    The cause of death was primary lateral sclerosis, a neuromuscular disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, said his wife, Sydelle (Silver) Gomberg . He was 85.

    “It’s a small world, the oboe world,” John Ferrillo , the BSO’s current principal oboist said in a telephone interview yesterday, “and Ralph loomed large in it.”

    A Concord resident, Mr. Gomberg, who was with the BSO from 1950 to 1987, was widely considered one of America’s foremost oboists. It was a status he shared with his brother Harold , who for many years was principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic. Time magazine hailed “the darkling brilliance of Mr. Gomberg’s oboe playing.” A 1987 Globe review noted that “the plangent and pliant sound produced by Ralph Gomberg has been a crucial characteristic of the glory of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”

    In addition to his playing, Mr. Gomberg taught for many years at the Peabody Institute, in Baltimore, the New England Conservatory, Boston University, and the Berkshire Music Center. Among his former pupils are the principal oboists of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic.

    “Ralph left quite a legacy as a teacher,” Ferrillo said. “Besides his own students, there was his teaching at the Tanglewood Festival. For 30 or 40 years, he taught high school and college-age kids there. He really left his imprint.”

    Ralph Lewis Gomberg was born in Boston’s West End on June 18, 1921. His parents were Nathan Gomberg and Mary (Levin) Gomberg. “My mother sang a little; they both loved music,” Mr. Gomberg said in a 1985 Globe interview. Five of their seven children attended the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia. “I don’t want them cleaning gutters,” Sydelle Gomberg recalled her mother-in-law once saying, “so they’ll study music.”

    As the youngest, Mr. Gomberg found himself at a disadvantage musically. “His one regret about being the baby,” his widow recalled yesterday, “was when it was time to practice at home, he got the bathroom. Everyone else had the dining room or living room.”

    At 14, Mr. Gomberg became the youngest student to study with Curtis’s celebrated oboe teacher, Marcel Tabuteau , who also taught Harold Gomberg. Mr. Gomberg had started out on horn, but couldn’t find a good teacher. “I chose the oboe because I admired my brother’s sound,” Mr. Gomberg said in a 1987 Globe interview. “Being young and stupid, I also thought it was an easy instrument.”

    The oboe is, in fact, notoriously difficult. Those who play it must regularly fashion new reeds for the instrument. Mr. Gomberg made an estimated 15,000 reeds over the course of his career.Continued…

    In 1940, Leopold Stokowski hired Mr. Gomberg as first oboist for his All-American Youth Orchestra . Eugene Ormandy then drafted him to serve in his Philadelphia Navy Yard Band during World War II. “Ormandy said to me years later,” Mr. Gomberg laughingly recalled in a 1987 interview with the BSO’s newsletter, ” ‘Boy, did I fix you up.’ “

    After leaving the Navy, Mr. Gomberg enjoyed stints with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra , the New York City Center Orchestra , and the Mutual Broadcasting Orchestra . He also helped found the New York Woodwind Quintet and worked as a musical freelancer in Hollywood.

    At one point, Mr. Gomberg was ready to abandon music for a job in real estate when Leonard Bernstein called to tap him for the City Center Orchestra. “Years later I told him that if it hadn’t been for that, I’d be a multimillionaire,” he recalled in a 1990 Globe interview.

    Mr. Gomberg soon became an institution at the BSO, though he momentarily got off to a shaky start. In a 1987 interview for the orchestra’s newsletter, he described his first rehearsal. BSO music director Charles Munch was conducting Albert Roussel’s “Bacchus et Ariane. “

    “There’s that little oboe solo of three quarter-notes. I had no idea from his beat — which looked like he was making French mayonnaise — if it was in six or three. So I didn’t come in.” Munch just smiled, Mr. Gomberg recalled, and all went well the next time.

    A founding member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players , Mr. Gomberg formed a quarter of what was almost a chamber group with the orchestra. Along with clarinetist Harold Wright , bassoonist Sherman Walt , and flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer , Mr. Gomberg made up a fabled woodwind section that spanned the music directorships of Munch, Erich Leinsdorf , William Steinberg , and well into that of Seiji Ozawa.

    “I never expected to feel like a quartet member,” Dwyer, the last surviving member of the group, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “That’s for strings. But I really felt that way with them, Ralph especially.

    “He was always very generous, even protective. He was just very nice. And as a musician, he was very artistic. By that I mean he didn’t just get a pretty tone. He wasn’t thinking of tone so much as what he had to say. It’s always a pleasure to play with someone like that. It makes it easier. And it’s just so warm and human. He was never indifferent.”

    “If I’ve learned one thing, or if I could pass on one thing,” Mr. Gomberg said in that 1987 BSO interview, “it’s that music is not a technical art, it’s an expressive art. The oboe is such an expressive instrument — when it starts to play, it’s a unique sound and everyone is intrigued with it — I hope!”

    In addition to his wife, Mr. Gomberg leaves three daughters, Stephanie Chiha, of Concord, Jamie Balint , of Hudson, N.H., and Debra Diamond , of Mansfield; a son, David , of Framingham; and seven grandchildren.

    A memorial service will be held Friday at 1 p.m. in First Parish in Concord. Another service will be held in January.

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