Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

After 39 years with WSO, Klassen putting down clarinet

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We've all heard that expression, "when one door closes, another door opens." It certainly seems to apply to Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra clarinetist Richard Klassen, who is retiring at the end of this concert season.

After 39 years with the orchestra, Klassen is packing away his reeds and picking up his paintbrush. Klassen works in oils and acrylics and now plans to devote more time to his artwork. "I'm somewhat of an aficionado of Australian aboriginal art, "said the 63-year-old Klassen during a telephone interview. "In 2010 I took a sabbatical in Australia for an entire year."

The Charleswood resident and his wife stayed in a house in Melbourne and spent the year seeing the country. "We plan to go back," he said. "It was kind of a practice for retirement. They have a fabulous orchestra in Melbourne and a great art and music scene."

Klassen's career with the WSO began in 1972, when Piero Gamba was the conductor. "It was the 25th anniversary season," he recalled, "and we played the Dvorak New World Symphony - it's kind of like bookends, because we played it this year, too. We had wonderful guest artists: Arthur Fiedler, Phillipe Entremont and Itzhak Perlman. It was a wonderful experience."

Klassen grew up in rural Manitoba, where he began his early musical studies on violin. He wasn't keen. "It was the worst ever," he recalled. "I started clarinet by accident. Our town had a band and they gave me an extra clarinet and said 'Why not give it a try?" I liked it right away."

Klassen went on to study with Avrahm Galper, well-known teacher and author of several method books for clarinet at the University of Toronto, earning his Bachelor of Music in performance. He spent many summers at the International Peace Gardens then, courtesy of a Canada Council grant, studied in Paris with renowned Israeli clarinetist and recording artist Yona Ettlinger.

While with the WSO Klassen met his wife Karin, a violinist, who also played with the orchestra. The couple has two children, Evan, 32, a stage manager currently working in God of Carnage at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Deanna, 29, a pediatric resident in Calgary who is expecting the Klassens' first grandchild in July.

For Klassen, retirement means more family time, enjoying days at the cottage in the Whiteshell, travel, woodworking and painting. He will continue to teach clarinet at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate and looks forward to going to concerts as a member of the audience.

Thirty-nine years is a long time to spend in any one place or position, but for Klassen, life all fell into place and there are no regrets. "We started a family," he said, "and our extended family was here. Things are artistically satisfying and challenging. I've had lots of opportunities to play wonderful music."

His long service, loyalty and musicianship have not gone unnoticed. "Rick Klassen is one of the most dedicated musicians of the WSO," said conductor Alexander Mickelthwate. "I am deeply grateful for his musicality and beautiful playing over the years."

And Klassen's colleague, principal clarinetist Micah Heilbrunn added: "What I admire most about Rick is his true love of music and music-making. Even after 39 years he still comes to work with a positive attitude, and he is always excited to play the great works. Rick has devoted his life to serving his community through his art and it has been an honour to work with him for the past six seasons."

It hasn't always been easy. Klassen recalls some low points -- years where there were economic issues, budget restraints and lockouts. But, with a buoyant sense of optimism, he focuses more on the many positive events he experienced during his tenure with the WSO, including playing Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15 under the great Kirill Kondrashin way back in 1976. The WSO's 1979 performance at Carnegie Hall was a career high (the orchestra is slated to play there again in 2014). Klassen also calls playing late romantic and impressionist compositions under Kazuhiro Koizumi "fabulous" and recalls the early days of the New Music Festival with Bramwell Tovey, especially performing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. And like many WSO musicians who played during the years Andrey Boreyko conducted here, Klassen has only glowing remarks: "Everything he did was cerebral, thought-out and wonderful."

What will this musical veteran miss the most once he leaves the orchestra? "The interaction with the players," he said, without hesitation. "We've become close friends; it's been a collegial thing. And of course, I'll miss playing great music. But it will be nice to have weekends off!"

For audience members, as well as Klassen's playing, we'll miss that familiar snowy-white head of hair back in the woodwind section. Happy retirement, Rick!

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2012 C4

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