By Gene Kavadlo, former principal clarinetist of the Charlotte Symphony
As the orchestra was rehearsing, the loud sound of a vacuum cleaner in the lobby was becoming increasingly annoying. Finally, the conductor asked his assistant, a rather diminutive fellow, to see if he could do something about it. Jordan went to the lobby. Suddenly there was a THWAP! and the annoying sound stopped abruptly. Without missing a beat, Jim said "Oh no, now we're going to have to get Jordan out of the bag." Anyone who knew Jim knew that he was the sharpest wit in the room. My children, now in their 40's, always referred to him as "our Jim." Our Jim succumbed to a 17 year battle with cancer on August 11, 2020.
I first met Jim in our student days at Indiana University during the 1960's. After college Jim served four years in the military as a member of the US Marine Band and White House Orchestra, and I went on to become the Principal Clarinetist of the Charlotte Symphony in N.C. One day I got a call that started with "You probably don't remember me..." It was Jim, and of course I knew exactly who he was. He had taken an audition with the Charlotte Symphony and won the job - beginning a fabulous eight year relationship as colleagues in the same Orchestra. It was in the Charlotte Symphony that Jim started playing the bass clarinet. There had been an older gentleman playing, but his skills were declining. One day the instrument fell over as it was resting in its stand, and Jim declared that it had committed suicide.
When Jim won a job at the MET I had very mixed feelings. I didn't want to lose my dear colleague, but he certainly couldn't pass up a career move like that. Before leaving Charlotte Jim found out that one of his first assignments would be to play the basset horn obligato from Mozart's Clemenza di Tito. Jim had never played the basset horn, nor heard Clemenza di Tito. We listened to a recording in my living room (before YouTube days), and Jim burst out laughing. When I asked him what was so funny, he said "I'm so glad I get to play this at the MET before I play it someplace really important." Naturally, his performance several weeks later was superb. Thus began his 33 year tenure as Principal Bass Clarinetist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Jim's playing can be heard on numerous Grammy award winning Metropolitan Orchestra recordings, including Wagner's Ring Cycle on Deutsche Gramophone. He was also a member of the All-Star Orchestra made up of leading players from major American Orchestras. He served many summers in the Spoleto, Grand Teton, Bard, Napa Valley and Verbier festivals, and was an instructor at Julliard.
Former Principal Oboist of the MET, John Ferrillo, visited Jim a few days before he passed and played some beautiful oboe music for him. This is a story from John: "When Jim was stationed with the Marine Band in DC, he was dating an oboist. On a number of occasions he would make the 3 hour drive to Philly to bring her to her lesson with John deLancie, first oboist for the Philadelphia Orchestra. On one of those drives he needed to use the bathroom; when he asked permission, Mr. deLanci told him no.
"Years later, Mr. and Madame deLancie came to the MET. They were ardent opera fans. At the end of one of the performances, they met me at the gift shop. Before we parted company, he asked me who was playing the basset horn in Clemenza di Tito two broadcasts ago. I was delighted - 'funny you should mention him; that was my close friend, Jim Ognibene.' 'Well...let me tell you - that was some of the finest woodwind playing I have ever heard!' 'Why, Mr. deLancie, that's Jim coming through the doors right there.' Mr. deLancie insisted on taking Jim aside and spoke avidly to him for a number of minutes. For Jim it was one of the greatest accolades he'd ever received."
Later that night, I called Jim. Of course, I knew the line was coming. "I thought the time was right for me to ask if I could use his bathroom now."
Our thoughts and prayers are with Jim's family and friends.