#teacher | Richard Ortner, Boston Conservatory’s final president, at 71

Mr. Ortner, who traced his “real musical education” to an usher’s job at Carnegie Hall in New York City when he was in college, died of cancer Thursday, at 71. His death was announced by the school he once led, which is now called Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

He was the final administrator to hold the title of president at Boston Conservatory, which was founded in 1867.

“Richard’s love of the arts and of Boston Conservatory were two defining passions in his life,” Cathy Young, senior vice president and executive director of Boston Conservatory at Berklee, said in a statement.

“He cared deeply about every member of the conservatory community and was so very proud of our students and faculty,” Young added. “His vision shaped an extraordinary school, and he leaves a powerful legacy of excellence.”

In the 2000 Globe interview, Mr. Ortner said that “the best work that goes on here is world-class.”

To improve upon those efforts, he presided over facilities expansions such as the renovation of the 31 Hemenway St. building and the construction on Ipswich Street of what is now the Richard Ortner Studio Building.

“I just want to empower people to do the best job they are capable of,” he said of his aspirations as president.

By October 2016, when he said he would step down the following June, Mr. Ortner was ready to let others guide the conservatory, which had officially merged with Berklee a couple of months earlier.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time and institutions absolutely require the ability to refresh their leadership periodically,” he told the Globe then. “I do want to get out of the way for the new generation. They deserve the same privilege that I had in this position.”

At that time, Berklee’s president Roger Brown
said that “Richard Ortner is a living encyclopedia of musical and artistic knowledge. His passion for the Boston Conservatory is palpable.”

As the conservatory’s president, Mr. Ortner was also a mentor to other administrators and leaders, many of whom became friends.

“His emotional intelligence and vast knowledge and curiosity let each of his hundreds of friends feel that they were truly seen and understood,” said Cynthia Curme, a trustee for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and for Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

Anthony Fogg, the BSO’s artistic administrator, said that “the last 20 years were a period of glorious achievement for Richard. I always think ‘vision’ is an overused word, but Richard certainly had an idea of where he could take the conservatory and a fierce determination to realize that.”

Fogg also spoke of Mr. Ortner’s “great inquisitive spirit,” and added that “he was a person of immense culture and knowledge on many subjects.”

Before switching to music, Mr. Ortner had studied architecture in college, and he was known to converse widely about both of those topics, along with photography and the other arts.

Because the conservatory offered music, dance, and theater programs, he emphasized the cross-disciplinary nature of studying there.

“Our music theater students take dance from our dance faculty, and they study ballet, modern, jazz, and tap; they study voice with the same faculty that teaches the opera students,” he said in 2000. “This variety of training and experience is what makes our students employable.”

Indeed, his own introduction to the arts was in American musical theater, rather than purely classical music.

Referring to three framed albums, all autographed, that were hanging in his office, Mr. Ortner recalled in 2000 that he “didn’t grow up with classical music; that came later. But my parents took me to see Broadway shows, and I have the signed original-cast albums to prove it.”

Born in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island, on May 28, 1948, Mr. Ortner was 5 when he began studying piano, and he accompanied the chorus as a student in junior and senior high school.

He also directed the choir for the Long Island Federation of Temple Youth, according to the conservatory.

Mr. Ortner would later lament the declining emphasis on music in schools.

He told the Globe in 1999 that when he was young, “it was unthinkable to enter a classroom that didn’t have a piano, or to encounter a teacher who couldn’t sit down to play ‘Happy Birthday’ to someone. Music was considered a natural, normal part of being alive. But today you would look in vain for that classroom or that teacher. We have lost two generations of people to thinking of music as a normal pursuit.”

After high school, he studied architecture at The Cooper Union in New York City, then switched to New York University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music. He also produced radio classical music programs.

While ushering at Carnegie Hall, he met the famous conductor Leonard Bernstein. “Harry Kraut, who worked for Leonard Bernstein, told me I should go to Tanglewood and work as a guide,” Mr. Ortner said in 2000.

He did just that and rose through the BSO ranks. At the Tanglewood Music Center, he learned about budgets, schedules, and how well-executed orchestra management could help bring music to people.

Mr. Ortner served as Tanglewood’s administrator for more than a decade until 1997, when he resigned during a reorganization orchestrated by Seiji Ozawa, who was then the BSO’s music director.

“And then one day I had a call asking me if I would be interested in becoming a candidate for the presidency of the Boston Conservatory,” he said in the Globe interview, three years later.

Memorial service plans were not immediately available for Mr. Ortner, whose only immediate survivor is his brother, Jonathan, according to the conservatory.

Mr. Ortner’s “wisdom and grace throughout his life as a leader and mentor and friend, and especially his sense of humor and incredible courageousness in his last years, set an example for a life beautifully and well lived,” Curme said.

Fogg said he and other friends were always struck by Mr. Ortner’s “sense of fairness and good humor, even in the face of difficult situations or problems. There was always this even-handedness about everything he was dealing with, even these terrible health issues.

“He had a sense of quiet dignity that I found so absolutely compelling as a friend and colleague,” Fogg added. “That’s certainly what I’m going to miss most of all.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.


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