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Ralph Wilder, Clarinetist Extraordinaire
When the New York touring company of Fiddler on the Roof came to Chicago a number of years ago, a local musician was hired to play the clarinet backstage for the famous wedding scene. The musicians in the pit orchestra tended to look down their noses at this local guy so he in turn fed their conde-scension by playing the notes in the score in a very straight fashion, competent, but nothing remarkable. Then came opening night. The wedding scene began and the backstage clarinet player let rip, the notes of the wedding dance “wailing and kvetching” in true klezmer style. Heads in the pit orchestra jerked up in surprise. Where did that come from? That local guy? Yes indeed. That local guy. Ralph Wilder, clarinetist with Chicago’s own Maxwell Street Klezmer Band — and what a guy he was!
A Chicagoan through and through, Ralph was born and raised on Chicago’s south side. He didn’t pick up a clarinet until he was in high school, but was soon hooked on the instrument. He earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education at North-western and went on to have a career that included conducting the Northwest Concert Band, teaching woodwinds and music appreciation at North Park University, and playing principal clarinet in the Evanston Symphony. For many years, Ralph was also the leader of his own “party band,” the Ralph Wilder Orchestra, and performed frequently with the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band as well as with a local jazz band and a Dixieland band.
ESO Music Director Larry Eckerling met Ralph almost 40 years ago when both were hired to play for an event. Ralph was warming up with some classical riffs, so Larry joined in on the piano. Then Ralph changed style in an unspoken challenge to Larry to keep up. He did. Back and forth they went, the first notes in a very long friendship that included Ralph acting as best man at Larry’s wedding. Then, in 2007, Ralph was the guest soloist in the ESO’s performance of Calandrelli’s Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra, delighting the audience with his unique style and his encore of It’s Only a Paper Moon. Several months later, the position of first clarinet with the ESO opened up and Ralph stepped into the role, happy to wear that hat along with his many others.
In May of 2018, however, tragedy struck. During a rehearsal with the Chicago Clarinet Ensemble, a large theatre screen and its housing broke loose from its ceiling moorings and fell on Ralph, leaving him paralyzed from mid-chest down and ending his career, but not his spirit. Unfortunately, his body slowly deteriorated and he succumbed to his injuries on February 26, 2022.
Larry Eckerling describes his longtime friend as “an outgoing guy, one who was fun and liked to joke around. He also had his pensive side, but that rarely showed except when he was immersed in music, whether playing the famous Rachmaninoff solo, kvetching on a klezmer tune, or swinging to Benny Goodman. His heart was on his sleeve. If you knew his playing, you knew all sides of him because it was right there.”
Ralph’s daughter, Debby, noted that “it was the spirit of everyone else in his life that made him look forward to each day. He loved music and loved the people who loved him. And he was in constant motion; he never sat down!” She added that the family was deeply touched by the number of heartfelt tributes to Ralph they received, many from people who said “Ralph got me started with [my band, my teaching, my conducting, my…] and made my life better.“
Ralph Wilder. What a guy.