Melding of renowned music director and Austin Symphony will be a treatPublished 10:44am Friday, February 22, 2013
By Jerry Goodrich, Special to the Herald
Music Director Stephen Ramsey will be “making history” when he brings his baton down to start this Sunday’s concert by the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the Paramount Theatre. It will be the first-ever performance there by the ASO.
Its interior crafted to resemble a Spanish garden, with a starlit sky above, this beautiful and fascinating venue is a pièce de résistance in an afternoon of music that will entertain and thrill. Later in this column, the maestro himself will tell you about the concert and guitarist Billy McLaughlin, his remarkable special guest.
Stephen Ramsey has been the musical director and conductor of the ASO for nearly 20 years. He leads it in four concerts a year, plus giving two free concerts for 2,000 school children annually and directing a concert as part of Austin’s Freedom Fest Fourth of July celebration.
Ramsey also directs the Dakota Valley Symphony, which he founded in 1986. It serves the south metro. Always performed at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center, concerts by the DVS have left me as satisfied as when I attended performances by the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
I have not yet attended an ASO performance. However, I am eagerly looking forward to Sunday’s concert, because I have it on good authority that, like the DVSC, the ASO provides artistic quality rivaling elite professional ensembles.
The common denominator is, of course, Stephen Ramsey. He has bestowed symphonic excellence on both the south metro and the fortunate citizens of Austin.
I wanted to learn more about this extraordinary musician with the easy smile, and met him for coffee at JoJo’s in Burnsville where we talked at length.
His birth place was established by a crime. His dad was in the Signal Corps for a two-year stint when his camera was stolen while he was attending radio school in Japan before going to Korea. He was required to remain in Japan for the court martial and then, because he had graduated at the top his class, was assigned as an instructor in the school. Unlike Korea, dependents were allowed in Japan, so Stephen’s mom flew over from Minnesota to be with her husband for the birth of their first child. Stephen J. Ramsey greeted the world in Sendai, Japan, in 1955.
Along with two sisters and a brother, Stephen grew up in south Minneapolis where he still lives. Among his siblings, he was the only one who pursued music as a profession. He has a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Missouri’s Conservatory of Music. “As a college student, I was encouraged to pursue singing as a career, but I couldn’t figure out how I could make a living and raise a family as a singer,” said Ramsey.
Stephen and Liz Ramsey have a son who plays the cello and a daughter who has taken dual piano lessons with her dad. At 80 years young, Stephen’s father plays a mean trombone, and performs with community bands in the Twin Cities area. “My mom is a ‘closet’ pianist,” Stephen told me. “She plays the piano only when no one else is around. If we want to hear mom play, we have to sneak up on her.
Stephen Ramsey’s plate would seem to be overflowing. Not only does he direct the two aforementioned symphony orchestras and their choruses, but he also directs an orchestra sponsored by the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center. This man must be a time management expert, because he does it all without missing a beat — literally.
After getting second coffee refills, I asked Stephen Ramsey to tell me about Sunday’s concert:
“We’ve titled the event ‘Blue jeans, Billy, and Beethoven.’ So dress casually for the concert which features renowned guitarist Billy McLaughlin, a five-time Minnesota Music Award winner, accompanied by our string section. Billy will amaze you. After 20 years of astounding audiences with his complex and rhythmic new-age music, he developed ‘focal dystonia,’ an incurable neuromuscular disease that threatened to end his career. Undaunted, he taught himself to play his distinctive hammering style ‘left-handed,’ and resumed his career with even greater success.
“The full orchestra will then perform the Coriolan Overture and Symphony Number 7, each by Ludwig van Beethoven. The former is a love story set in a time of great conflict — both tender and stirring. Beethoven considered the latter one of his best compositions. He did much of the work on it while staying in the Bohemian spa town of Teplice in the hope of improving his health. The audience will enjoy both of these pieces immensely.”
Before we departed JoJo’s, I felt compelled to ask Stephen if his passion for music was all-consuming, or if he found time for other activities. “It’s important in life to be a well-centered person and find a balance,” he said. “I love to read, especially excellent mysteries. Also, I have a great interest in aviation, and enjoy bicycling immensely. I have a road bike and a cross-over. Living near the Minnehaha Parkway, I can be on the trails in seconds.”
I hope that you will join me for this Sunday’s concert at 2 p.m. Advance tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for college students; door tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for college students. Students K-12 will be admitted free.
A Prior Lake resident and former magazine editor, Jerry Goodrich is a frequent guest columnist with the Minneapolis Star Tribune.