The New York oboist who could do anything

The New York oboist who could do anything


norman lebrecht

May 15, 2018

Marcia Butler offers this memorial tribute to a great mensch on the oboe:

It is an honor to speak about Rich Dallessio, an extraordinary human being, an exceptional artist and my dear, dear friend of many years. It’s difficult to cull down everything that Rich meant to me and to the music community in the minutes available here. There is just so much to celebrate about him. The two things that stand out, are his devotion to me as a friend and the impact he had on my life, and his incredible accomplishments as an oboist.

I can’t remember the exact occasion when I first met Rich, though it was, of course, on a job. We played together for years, from the mid 80’s until my retirement ten years ago. And it was always a total joy. But this joy held a very special quality because Rich was a unique colleague. This town is filled with superior oboists and while healthy camaraderie is usually the norm – things were different with Rich and me. In all the years I performed with him, I never, for one second, felt a competitive or jealous edge from Rich. We were fluid with our positions – he played first, he played second and he played English Horn. I did exactly the same. And it never, ever, mattered. We were in each other’s corner, wishing the other success.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the years. Because we were contrary players, with different sounds and ideas about music. We studied with vastly different teachers whose approach to oboe playing could not have been more dissimilar. I respected and loved Rich’s musical sway, and I’d like to think he found mine to be worthy too. Perhaps this was part of the reason we were so easy with each other.  I could never play the way he did, and he couldn’t emulate me. Nor did we want to.

What made Rich a truly one of a kind oboist? He could play lead at the Met in Aida on a two-hour notice, beautifully, with complete knowledge of the opera and nail the solos, particularly in the third act. I heard him do just this a little over a year ago. It was simply gorgeous and I was so proud of him.  He also played the most perfect second oboe imaginable. It is a special gift to not only play softer than the lead player and keep your pitch up in the low register, but also understand subtle voicing and blend. He knew exactly how he needed place his sound and pitch when playing tutti with the woodwinds. He had in impeccable ear, his pitch practically flawless. And watch out, he could nail poor intonation out of a line-up of 30 players. Sometimes that was me, and I was grateful when he told me. And last but not least, his English Horn playing simply slayed me. He was particularly proud to finish his career as solo English horn at the NYC Ballet, a job he adored. He just recently told me how lucky he was to have that job and how he revered his colleagues in that orchestra. I know Rich would want you all to know that.

I detail all this, because everyone on stage certainly appreciates when the oboes are particularly yummy, but playing all three positions on the level he did, was rare. They are more different than anyone could imagine, unless you’re an oboist. Rich was that kind of player – he could do it all brilliantly, and he was invaluable to any orchestra he played with: The Met, The Ballet, European orchestras coming through Carnegie, and the list goes on and on and on. This was Rich’s genius, and I use that term particularly.

But we shared much more, and this is the other part of the puzzle that made us the best of colleagues. We were close friends, and held marathon sessions on the phone. The topics ranged: The stock market. Reeds, of course. Conductors, ahem. Work. Weight lifting. Messiaen – a particular love of Rich’s. Our spouses. Dogs. Pianos – he had four at last count and played beautifully, by the way. Organs – the kind in churches. Our regrets. Our sadness. Food. Gas stations. The Dallessio Clan – a soon to be a three-part movie of the week on the Lifetime Channel. Love. The Golden Girls. And yes, sex. On and on. There were gaps in communication, of course, but as the cliché goes – there were no gaps. Not really. We just picked up and we dished. He was an invaluable friend to me – someone I could trust and whose moral compass was perfect North. I knew Rich’s secrets and he knew a few of mine.

When Rich was diagnosed and his treatment determined, he and Kenny asked me to sit with them on chemo days. I know a thing or two about sitting in a chair for many hours and feeling incredibly weird and indescribably ill, while poison slips into your veins. So, at the end of summer, through the fall and into this new year, I went pretty much every other week. Kenny would get food from the local diner, and they quickly became his best friends, of course. The three of us would eat lunch and take inventory like there was no tomorrow. There were prisoners, yes, but everyone lived. No topic went unexamined and in excruciating detail. We laughed, and Rich had the best laugh around – his eyes would disappear – sheer glee. His chemo nurse, Grace – an angel – would come in from time to time to check on Rich. And we’d always ask if we were too loud for the other patients. Because all we did was laugh really loudly. She assured us, no. But who could blame us. It was a god damned party; the best of times in a painful bubble of the worst of times.

There was so much joy and love in that tiny hospital room, crammed with Rich’s recliner and our two chairs. I felt honored to witness two people completely devoted to making the other happy. Yes, it went both ways. But there was nothing that Kenny would not do for Rich. His devotion to Rich, at times, literally raised the hair on my neck. It was pure. Long relationships are made up of a lot of heart and gristle – nothing is ever perfect. But what I observed was love playing out in a breathtaking way. I saw a manner of loving that was at once profoundly beauty, almost heroic in its breadth, and also something to aspire to. It sounds unattainable, yet there it was, in this small room. Week after week. Love.

The final day I saw Rich was at his last treatment in mid-February. He came into the suite and I could see that something was wrong. He sat next to me and became teary. It turns out, it wasn’t his disease that was bothering him, it was his performance at the Ballet the previous evening. We musicians in this room know that when we make mistakes in a concert – we just push through. But the next morning, the quarter backing can drive us literally crazy. I made him tell me, in detail, what went wrong. I thought, if I can diffuse it a little for him, he’ll be able to give himself a break. And indeed, the errors were almost negligible; more like flubs which he corrected immediately.

I said – Richie, it’s not so bad, really very small.

He said – But Marsh, I let my colleagues down, and the music wasn’t right.

That, my dear friends in this room, is what was so special about Rich Dallessio. There was no ego involved – nothing about his playing. Just the professionalism of wanting to be the best he could be for his colleagues and, of course, for the music.

Rich Dallessio’s warmth and immense integrity as a man cannot be divorced from his brilliance as a musician. The two are inextricably linked and made him the musician and the friend I will never forget.

And I will miss beyond comprehension.

The way he was humble.

The way he was self-assured.

The way he was kind.

The way he would not back down.

The way he was gentle.

The way he was my friend.

The way he was a loving husband.

And the way music will always remember him – and every melody he ever played, which is shimmering in the air right now.




  • Gerhard says:

    This is incredibly touching and beautiful. RIP.

  • Bill says:

    Excellent piece on someone who sounds like a most excellent human…need more like him!

  • Marg says:

    I dont know him but I was deeply moved reading this. What a wonderful tribute to a man who brought such joy though music and himself to so many. Thank you.

  • Claire Tremblay says:

    It made me feel like practicing my oboe, with more devotion
    Claire Tremblay
    San Francisco

  • Sheila Wurm says:

    I wish I could have known him.
    Kind regards.

  • Susan Spector says:

    Thank you, Marcia, for your inspiring words about our beautiful friend. How you actually spoke them aloud at his memorial service astounded me, but you did so valiantly. Your words and your voice were a testament to the true gentleman that Rich was, and your strength and purposefulness that day showed what a devoted friend you were to him.

    As Marcia knows, I also had the pleasure of playing with Rich and I too felt the need to put my thoughts into written word. I recently shared my personal tribute to him on my blog. Anyone interested can read it here:

    • NYYgirl says:

      Marcia, I don’t know which is more beautiful- the way you described Rich the musician, or Rich the human being, or Rich the incomparable colleague…or…? What an all-around quality person he was. It’s a privilege to read this. Thank you.

  • Trudy Kane says:

    A beautiful tribute to a beautiful guy. He was the definition of “mensch”, and while he was known to be someone you could count on to do anything, was under appreciated in that he never had the “big” job. Those of us who were lucky enough to know him and work with him knew how very special he was. Gone way to soon…….