Sara Watkins Shirley-Quirk, 52, orchestra conductor

December 04, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF Phil Greenfield, a free-lance music critic, contributed to this article.

Sara Watkins Shirley-Quirk, a conductor, Peabody Conservatory faculty member and former principal oboist with the National Symphony, died Tuesday after collapsing during a rehearsal of a chamber music group at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda.

Ms. Watkins, who was 52, was resident conductor of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. She was involved in artistic planning of the current season and conducted the inaugural concert in the orchestra's Chamber Orchestra Series in a Maryland Hall program in September.

The Chicago native was a 1967 graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She was appointed principal oboist of the National Symphony by Maestro Antal Dorati and Mstislav Rostropovich in 1973 -- at the time becoming one of few women occupying a principal chair in a major American orchestra.

She relinquished that position in 1981 to further her career as a soloist and to pursue conducting, which she studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore under Frederik Prausnitz. She was awarded the conservatory's Artist Diploma, its highest and most prestigious conducting degree, this year.

"Of all the conductors whom I've taught, I believe she was the most complete and demanding artist," said Mr. Prausnitz, who retired from Peabody in June. "She had an enormous orchestral repertoire and she worked very hard to become a very good conductor. She was demanding but not bossy and the musicians respected her."

Since 1994, she had conducted and been music director of the Serenta at the Peabody Conservatory, where she was a member of the wind and chamber music faculty.

Ms. Watkins, a Clarksville resident who used her maiden name professionally, had started to take on a major role in the administration of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra at the time of her death.

In October, Roger Brunyate, director of the Peabody Opera Theater, collaborated with Ms. Watkins and her husband of 16 years, internationally renowned British bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk, on a Halloween orchestral presentation for children.

She presented "Phantoms and Phantasy," which featured music inspired by the works of Grieg, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky and Dukas.

"She recruited me to write a narration for the 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' that would be spoken over the music by her husband," Mr. Brunyate said.

"This was typical of her. She was always a fount of ideas and had this massive energy. She was always very eager to share music with children, and I cannot believe that any conductor anywhere spent as much time over a children's concert as she did," he said.

For the concert, she insisted on personally writing and recording the educational materials that were sent to Anne Arundel County music teachers in preparation for their students' trips to hear the orchestra.

"Never before have I worked with a conductor who invested so much time and love to the development and implementation of our education and family concerts," said Pamela Chaconas,the Annapolis Symphony's education director.

ASO Executive Director Jane Schorsch said, "Sara embodied everything that is right about this business -- working to exhaustion and with little thought of her remuneration to make a concert as perfect as humanly possible. Her boundless joy and enthusiasm for the job infected all around her. She will be missed terribly, as a colleague and as a friend."

As an oboist, she made appearances and recordings with such ensembles as the Moscow Philharmonic, the Vienna Radio Symphony and England's City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and at musical festivals in Europe, the United States and South America.

Mr. Brunyate described her as "eager, excited, exciting and generous," and said her arrival at Peabody "transformed the department. She was quite a wonderful teacher."

Ms. Watkins also gained strong international notices for her work on the podium.

She recently made her first compact disc with the music of American composer Dominick Argento, and featuring her husband and soprano Linda Mabbs.

"A hush descended over Peabody today. You could feel it and see by the faculty members' faces and the students that everyone was talking about the loss of Sara," said Anne Garside, director of public relations at the Mount Vernon Place school.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by a son, Benjamin Shirley-Quirk; and two daughters, Emily Shirley-Quirk and Julia Lucy Shirley-Quirk, all at home.

More obituaries on next page.

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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