Met musicians mourn principal bass clarinet

Met musicians mourn principal bass clarinet


norman lebrecht

August 11, 2020

Fellow-musicians are reporting the death of James Ognibene, solo bass clarinetist with New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra since 1986.

Hailing from Warren, Ohio, Jim served four years as a member of the United States Marine Band and White House Orchestra in Washington, DC, before arriving at the Met.

Met clarinet Jessica Phillips writes: For 18 years I sat next to this humble, hilarious, incredible person. We saw each other through many ups and downs over the years, always with respect and a LOT of laughter. My first year in the orchestra, I often got in trouble for laughing at Jim’s dry, often self-deprecating witticisms. Jim had the most amazing sound on the bass clarinet. Even though he liked to say “playing bass clarinet is basically hours of boredom followed by 3 minutes of sheer terror”, he never ceased to amaze his colleagues across the orchestra with his musicianship. Even audience members knew he was a rockstar, especially during the Ring Cycle. Once, in having to end the rehearsal before finishing the Clemenza di Tito basset clarinet aria (for which Jim had already waited two hours to play), the conductor asked Jim “Are you ok?” and Jim instantly quipped “I make a living,” to which the entire orchestra roared in laughter, including the conductor. Even with his humor, Jim’s seriousness about bringing his absolute best each and every night, no matter what was going on, is one of the things I truly respected and loved about him. He was the consummate professional. My heart is so heavy that we have lost this gentle giant of the bass clarinet. He will be missed dearly. Words really cannot do him full justice, so for now, we hold him and his family in our hearts, and toast him on his way…


  • MET FAN says:

    Jim was a treasure. A wonderful person and beautiful musician. May he rest in peace.

  • RM says:

    Although having had the occasion to meet Jim just once in person, I did have several extended, lovely conversations with him on the phone quite a few years back – in particular a congratulatory call about his magnificent playing on that afternoon’s MET broadcast of Gotterdammerung.

    He was always the ideal bass clarinetist for me, his sound on that instrument truly otherworldly, his phrasing and expressiveness always quite moving. I told him that and he replied in the most dry and self-deprecating of ways: “Luckily stumbled upon the one playable reed of the season earlier this morning”.

    Just this last year, during a commute to play a concert, I happened to turn on the car radio just seconds before that same passage from Gotterdammerung came around once again and not realizing that it was a live MET concert, his sound immediately, suddenly awoke those same feelings of awe remembered from years before. Wow, I thought. That’s one of a kind.

    All one had to do was hear a couple of notes or the turn of a short phrase to realize that it could have been no one other than Jim. Come to find out, the broadcast that day was his last with the orchestra before his retirement.

    What a privilege it was to be with and to hear him – a personal and musical standout in such a fine orchestra of standouts.

  • fabio.luisi says:

    A wonderful musician, a great human being, and an amazing player on the bass clarinet: I still remember the range of colors and dynamics in the BC-Solo of Simone Boccanergra and the many unforgettable soli in the Ring Operas. I always was happy when I entered the pit at the Met and saw him sitting at his place, there on the left, close to the harp. He will be missed and I will miss him.

    • John Kelly says:

      Beautifully written Maestro. And I miss you at the Met too! Maybe one day……….stay healthy!

    • Thank you for your kind words. My brother Jim always spoke highly of you as a conductor and as a person.

      • Ron Odrich says:


        I am Ron Odrich and would like to speak with you and your sister, whom I met a few years ago while visiting with Jim. He was very loved friend of mine and my wife’s, a true old school, lovely, witty gem. We spent several delightful hours with him at our home having great clarinerd fun, and have been missing him since he left New York. Please contact me and give me a way of contacting you. The telephone number I have as your number is incorrect. My email is below.
        Our heartfelt condolences are sent to you and family.

        Ron and Johanna Odrich

        • Mary Ellen Vencel says:

          Hello Ron,
          I remember meeting you several years ago. Jim always spoke highly of you as a friend and your talents. Thank you for your kind words and condolences.
          Mary Ellen Vencel

  • Dr. Edward Hayes says:

    Jim & I were old friends when we were both in the military. Great story: Jim called me after he won the Met audition.
    However, he didn’t know if he should accept the position because it only paid $80,000 a year. Jim said he couldn’t afford to live in New York. I told him you will have
    many opportunities to
    make extra money and you don’t have to live in New York City.
    I reminded him that he is now a member of the greatest opera orchestra in the world!

  • Dan McKelway says:

    Jim was a dear, dear man who’s humility and humor were only outshone by his kindness and generosity.
    If Jim could make you feel better about a difficult moment he considered it his primary goal of the moment.
    I first played with Jim in the late 70’s or early 80’s when he was a member of the Charlotte Symphony.
    From then until the end Jim considered playing music and being an honest friend a great privilege.
    He will be missed!
    Dan McKelway

  • Barbara Lambert says:

    I went to IU with Jim, even dated him a bit, and he was just a terrific person and musician. Kept up with him when we both played in NC orchestras, and facebook has kept us in touch, so I know what an amazing career and life he’s had. He will be so missed. RIP Jim