ASO copes with loss Sara Watkins' death leaves symphony without its leader

'She was full of love'

Orchestra searching for successor to lead its spring concert

December 22, 1997|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The death of conductor Sara Watkins Shirley-Quirk at age 52 this month has hit the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra hard.

Watkins, who collapsed during a chamber music rehearsal in Bethesda on Dec. 2 and died of a coronary embolism a short time later, was a dynamic musical presence who had begun to play a significant role in the life of the orchestra.

A superior musician who for eight years was principal oboe of the National Symphony before resigning in 1981 to pursue a career conducting, she quickly became indispensable to the ASO this year, her first season with the orchestra.

She was designated the ASO's artistic adviser during the transition from Gisele Ben-Dor and the competition of four guest conductors vying to succeed her as music director.

As artistic adviser, Watkins was head of the orchestra's audition committee, evaluating musicians seeking to join the ASO's ranks.

Indeed, the principal oboe and flute players she recommended have proved her an astute judge of talent.

In September, Watkins inaugurated the orchestra's chamber concert series with a program highlighted by Bach's "Ich Habe Genug" cantata performed by her husband, the renowned British bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk.

In October, she conducted the ASO's Halloween family concert, enchanting children of all ages with her musical acumen and immense personal charm.

Educational outreach

Most conductors talk a good game when it comes to educational outreach but shun it like the plague when it comes time to cultivate the concertgoers of the future.

Not Watkins.

The ASO staff still can't get over the intense personal care she lavished on the tape recordings, lesson plans and other educational materials the orchestra sent to county schools in preparation for student visits to Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis to hear the players in person.

'Put that love to work'

"She was full of love," said ASO Executive Director Jane Schorsch.

"And she put that love to work in everything she prepared for those kids. She wrote everything herself.

"She personally recorded the tapes we sent out, and you could hear her excitement in every insight she shared.

"We will miss her tremendously. She was intrinsic to a lot of our plans," Schorsch said.

So the orchestra is coping with its loss and searching for a conductor to lead the second chamber concert in the spring.

The season's second family concert, which Watkins was not engaged to conduct, will proceed as scheduled in March.

Another's influence

The fate of the chamber concert series will depend on the preferences of the next ASO conductor.

And Watkins' day-to-day input is something the local orchestra will have to live without.

"She was invaluable," Schorsch said.

"It was a dream working with her, and we will miss her terribly."

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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