Performing with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra or substituting with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Laura Ahlbeck coaxed beautiful notes from her oboe, a challenging instrument.
“She had a velvety dark, even sound. It was extremely fluent, very, very smooth. This is a very difficult thing to achieve on the oboe,” said her longtime friend John Ferrillo, principal oboe of the BSO, who added that while playing with other musicians “she matched unbelievably well with color and pitch. She knew the repertoire. She always knew where to be at the right time. All of the qualities that a great ensemble player has, she had.”
Offstage, Ms. Ahlbeck’s contributions were just as memorable, from the way she taught to the colorful workspace she created at the desk where she tied reeds for her oboe, leaving behind a cascade of colorful threads that were a visual reminder of a lifetime of performances.
“Laura taught me so much about music, and maybe more importantly about the kind of person I wanted to be,” said Sarah Jeffrey, who is principal oboe of Toronto Symphony and studied with Ms. Ahlbeck. “She was an incredible role model in every way — as a musician, a teacher, a wife, a mother — and she was such an amazing friend. She had such incredible balance in her life, which is probably what I have taken from her the most, because that is what I try to emulate every day.”
About five years ago, Ms. Ahlbeck’s music was curtailed and then silenced after she was diagnosed with frontotemporal degeneration, a rare degenerative brain disease. She was 57 when she died June 11 in her Newton home.
“Laura was an integral part of the Boston music scene for many years,” said Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. “She played principal oboe with me and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra on many a July Fourth and as far away as Japan and Korea. Laura was a fantastic musician — scrupulously prepared and always profoundly musical.”
Because an oboe “requires an enormous amount of finicky work, oboists typically are the most disciplined of musicians,” said Ms. Ahlbeck’s husband, Richard Ranti, who is the BSO’s associate principal bassoon. “In that realm, she was one of the hardest working of all. She was just incredibly driven.”
That was the case from the beginning when “the oboe chose her. She started with flute and didn’t like it,” Ranti said. “She wanted a challenge and she met it. The oboe demands a personality like hers.”
As a teacher, Ms. Ahlbeck passed her self-discipline along to her students. At New England Conservatory, one of the schools where she taught, her students would fill a row of practice rooms at 7 a.m. “That would just be our practice time because she instilled that in us,” Jeffrey said. “We would show up and work hard.”
Ms. Ahlbeck also encouraged students to look beyond the instrument itself when searching for ways to perfect the oboe’s sound.
“She took tremendous care of the nuance of the phrase. It was like listening to the great singers,” Jeffrey said. “She said, ‘You know, Sarah, I think you need to listen to more Ella Fitzgerald.’ She was trying to help me listen to the beginnings of my notes and the ends of my notes to find more ease and smoothness, the way Ella sang. That’s the way Laura played. It was just so smooth and easy and gorgeous.”
The middle of three siblings, Ms. Ahlbeck grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where her mother was a social worker and her father was an engineer and an amateur jazz trombonist.
Ms. Ahlbeck worked at McDonald’s to earn money for her first oboe, her husband said, and was talented enough as a teenager to play with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. She graduated from Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in music and from Manhattan School of Music with a master’s in performance.
She and Ranti met when both were students at the Tanglewood Music Center.
As musicians in the outset of their careers, they courted from afar for several years. He was in Philadelphia and she was in New York City, performing with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. After Ranti joined the BSO, she left New York to join him in Boston. They married in 1988.
Along with her teaching at New England Conservatory and performing with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, Ms. Ahlbeck taught at Boston University, Bard College, and Boston Conservatory, and performed with the American Symphony Orchestra, Boston Lyric Opera, and Bard Festival Orchestra.
“She really was an incredible member of the New York and Boston music communities,” Ferrillo said.
Lockhart called her “a kind and generous colleague, and all of us at the Pops remember that and miss her greatly.”
Ms. Ahlbeck “was a major talent on the oboe. She so easily could have occupied any chair in any major orchestra in this country,” said Ferrillo, adding that as a substitute for the BSO, “she was the first call anytime we ever needed anybody in the oboe section,” and was “somebody who simply could not sustain an unkind thought about a colleague.”
Ms. Ahlbeck’s dedication to her instrument was not an unfamiliar obsession among musicians. “It was her life,” Ranti said. “She had other things in her life, too, but there was nothing more important than her oboe, until her kids came along.”
“She would talk so much about those beautiful kids of hers,” Ferrillo said.
A service has been held for Ms. Ahlbeck, who in addition to her husband leaves her children, Carolyn Ranti of Cambridge and Daniel Ranti of Boston; her mother, Judith (Hanhart) Ahlbeck of Columbus, Ohio; and a sister, Virginia Helpman of Worthington, Ohio.
Part of Ms. Ahlbeck’s secret was the care she took preparing reeds for her oboe, tying each one with threads that remained as a reminder after her playing ceased. On a C-clamp at her desk, Ranti said, “there are thousands and thousands of colorful threads, each one representing incredible hours of work.”
Looking at her reed desk, “you could just see the joy that it brought to her, and it was definitely infectious. As I look at my own reed desk right now, it looks a little like that,” said Jeffrey, who added that Ms. Ahlbeck taught students that “how you make your reeds is how you make your voice. She just had this mind for the exactness of what she wanted: for articulation, for tone, and for pitch, especially.”
Ms. Ahlbeck, her husband said, “would play two or three notes and just melt people’s hearts.”