The following is a longer version of the obituary I wrote for today's Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com.
Richard Ferrin was almost invisibly unassuming in daily life but he played the viola with a uniquely vibrant sound and had a generous streak, an insatiable curiosity, and a sly wit that made lasting impressions on hundreds of colleagues and students.
Mr. Ferrin, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 39 years until his retirement in 2006, died at his home in Lincolnshire, north of Chicago, last Wednesday. He was 82, and had been in declining health for several years.
A native of Pratt, Kansas, Mr. Ferrin became an accomplished violist and violinist and played in both the viola and first violin sections of the CSO over the years. He held two degrees from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and was a student in Jascha Heifitz’s master class at the University of Southern California. His viola teachers included the giant of that instrument, William Primrose. Before joining the CSO in 1967 at the request of music director Jean Martinon, Mr. Ferrin had been principal viola of the Seattle Symphony and on the faculty of the University of Washington.
"I loved sitting in the section with him," said his frequent CSO stand partner Max Raimi. "His sound was so alive and he had a unique facility with his left hand that could produce a wonderful vibrato."
Always curious about the people, languages, and teaching and performance techniques of other cultures and countries, Mr. Ferrin studied at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland, as a Sibelius scholar in 1957. His scholarship overlapped with the death of Sibelius himself at 91 and Mr. Ferrin attended the composer's state funeral in Helsinki. In 1962 Mr. Ferrin traveled on a university research grant to Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa in what was then the Soviet Union to observe string pedagogy there. In 1986 he was invited by the People's Republic of China to solo with the Shanghai Symphony and to give the first performances of Bartók's Viola Concerto with a Chinese orchestra. He returned in 1988 and 1990 to play the work with the Central Philharmonic of Beijing.
He personally sponsored four students from Shanghai to study with him at Roosevelt University in Chicago and in 1993 he went to South Africa to work with the African Youth Ensemble in Soweto. His project there was featured on ABC's World News Tonight.
As a member of Chicago Pro Musica he participated in many chamber music recordings and he produced his own records as well, including one of Bach cello suites and transcriptions with his CSO cellist colleague Richard Hirschl.
Although he had a quiet speaking voice and a formal accent that did not sound at all like Pratt, Kansas, Mr. Ferrin had a captivating smile, a love of wordplay, and a deadpan style of humor that he exhibited frequently in CSO rehearsals and at the members' luncheon table of The Cliff Dwellers, an arts club that for decades occupied the top floors of Orchestra Hall.
Max Raimi recalled, "Shortly after Dick retired, we were playing Borodin's Polovtsian Dances. When we got to the big Kismet tune, I saw Dick's unmistakable handwriting in the part, maybe from 25 years before. He had written, '"Take my hand, I'm stranger in paradise!" How much more interesting the sentiment becomes when you leave out the "a"'!"
Srdjan Majdov, a former employee at the CSO's Symphony Store, recalled "Mr. Ferrin's rather frequent and sometimes long visits to the store. He was overly modest about his own accomplishments and engaged in conversation with us about music without any inhibitions."
Acording to Max Raimi, at Mr. Ferrin's funeral in in Spring Grove in McHenry County Monday, an Episcopal priest told mourners that Mr. Ferrin in his last years "took to visiting his church at odd times, usually during the week, and would play his viola for hours at a time in the sanctuary. This priest would thank him, and Dick would wave him off: 'I'm doing it for God, not for you.'"
When ill health forced Mr. Ferrin's retirement he told his colleagues and friends that he was "heartbroken."
Survivors include his wife, Lieselotte, two daughters, Genevieve Noel and Vanessa Ferrin, a granddaughter, Emily Noel, and a sister, Carol Guenot.