Commentary on baseball, the Mets in particular, from the perspective of a professional orchestral musician is what one usually finds on this site. This particular post, though, will focus on a colleague and close friend of mine and the ways in which he was a great “teammate.”
My orchestra has lost a great musician and colleague. Rich Dallessio was a freelance oboist who played for numerous orchestras here in New York, most notably the New York City Ballet. He was also a frequent substitute player with us at the Metropolitan Opera. Rich battled liver cancer for almost an entire year; he passed away last week.
Substitute players at the MET and other professional music ensembles, including Broadway shows, are like bench players: they are called on in a pinch and often don’t have a lot of time to prepare for the gig. Veteran ballplayers often shine when given those opportunities, as did Rich.
If a regular MET musician called in sick to a rehearsal or performance at the last minute, Rich could be relied upon to answer his cellphone quickly and rearrange his schedule in order to be of assistance. Once he got to the MET, he would play whatever part was needed, without any fuss, making for a seamless performance that put everyone around him at ease, not the least of whom was the Orchestra Manager who is responsible for “fielding” a full orchestra every night!
Rich was an exceptionally fine player and an inspiring musician. He also had many years of experience playing our somewhat unique repertoire, thereby making him an especially valuable commodity to the wind section of the MET.
In addition, he was, hands-down, the finest sight-reader I have ever met. I remember one performance in particular that had all of us in the orchestra, the conductor included, in awe.
Some years ago, our regular English horn player called in sick to a performance of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schattten. Rich was asked to come in to sight-read the part for the performance, and he bravely took up the challenge.
All of Strauss’s operas feature extremely challenging virtuosic orchestral writing, often in very unusual keys. Beyond the inherent difficulty of the part itself was the fact that it had been many years since this lesser-known and less frequently performed opera had been presented at the MET. Rich had not played any of the rehearsals of the opera that season nor had he played any previous performances in the run.
The entire night, Rich was his usual unflappable, solid, reliable self. He never lost his place, which is remarkable in and of itself, but he also played the numerous solos (which he was hearing for the first time as he was playing them!) with sensitivity and nuance. It was a stunning performance that many of us in the wind section still speak of to this day.
Even as a sub, Rich certainly had the chops for solo English horn and solo oboe playing. When he found himself in the Principal chair, there was nothing apologetic or timid about his playing whatsoever. And yet, he could just as easily assume the role of Second Oboe and deftly defer to the Principal player, matching pitch, note lengths, volume, and style without ever a word being exchanged between the two players.
I know this because he played Second Oboe to me. And I played Second Oboe to him as well.
And that’s because Rich knew the joy that being a part—any part—of a winning team can be. It really didn’t matter to him where he sat or what part he played. He was in it for the team. “Put me in coach! I’m ready to play today.”
He was a utility player on the order of former Mets Kelly Johnson or Justin Turner. And, as in baseball, a player who can field more than one position can be of tremendous value, especially if he/she can perform well in the clutch. Rich was that guy.
Rich loved being part of a team. And he loved playing music. And he had an infectious laugh. I loved when all of those things came together—which they often did.
I’ll never forget the times we both played onstage in the Don Giovanni bandas together. Mozart’s Don Giovanni calls for small instrumental ensembles—bandas—in each of the opera’s two acts. The score calls for two onstage oboes in both acts. The musicians appear onstage and in costume and, for that reason, they are often involved at least peripherally in the staging.
Rich was involved in playing the Don Giovanni bandas just about every time the opera was performed at the MET. The other onstage oboe assignment usually fell to a colleague of mine, but in 1997, I lucked into my first and (so far at least) only run of performances of Don Giovanni in which I did not play in the pit but had the pleasure of playing onstage in costume along with Rich.
It was always a delight to play with Rich: his sound had a spinning, vibrant quality that reminded me of a really good coloratura soprano—Judith Blegen, Kathleen Battle, Barbara Bonney. It was a sound that was very similar to what I aim for myself, actually. That’s probably one of the reasons it was always such a pleasure playing with him and why blending with each other’s sound was so effortless.
These performances, then, were a treat for me, musically. But that was only the half of it. The fun of being in costume and part of the stage action was never lost on Rich, even after many performances of this work. Once I had gotten a few performances under my belt and became more comfortable onstage, we both had even more fun.
Near the end of Act I, Giovanni is hosting a party at which many instrumentalists are playing, e.g., the banda. Giovanni dances with Zerlina and leads her into an adjoining room to try to seduce her. She screams for help and pandemonium ensues about the time our music has ended at which time we were instructed to react in surprise and exit stage right.
While we always followed our stage directions, it seemed that with every performance, Rich and I took a little more poetic license, if you will, and made more of our very little time onstage as court musicians than we had in the previous performance. Our looks of astonishment became ever more exaggerated—wide-eyed, mouths agape. We played off of each other: he looked left, I looked right, each of us feigning an intense curiosity as to what had prompted Zerlina’s cries. While the rest of the musicians had shrugged their shoulders in a bored manner and shuffled offstage, he and I pantomimed exaggerated and extended inquisitiveness about the kerfuffle resulting in our being the last banda members to exit the stage.
I don’t think this was apparent to anyone else, and the Stage Manager certainly didn’t need to come after us with a hook, but we definitely had some great times and some hearty laughs, channeling our inner thespians for those two nights every week when that opera was being performed that season.
Mozart: Don Giovanni, Act II – Metropolitan Opera, 1997 Rich Dallessio, front row, left; Susan Laney Spector, front row, center. Photo @Beth Bergman
Rich was a mirth-filled, down-to-earth, kind and generous person. As fine as his oboe-playing was, he was an even finer human being. He will be missed at the MET, at the NYC Ballet and other ensembles in which he played, and by all of his many students to whom he devoted much time and energy.