Oboist and Conductor
Sara Watkins Shirley-Quirk, oboist and resident conductor of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, died suddenly of a coronary embolism December 2, 1997, at age 52. She was leading a rehearsal of a chamber music group at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, when she collapsed.
The symphony's executive director Jane Schorsch told the Maryland Sun that "Sara embodied everything that is right about this business--working to exhaustion and with little thought of 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."
At the time of her death, Ms. Watkins had begun to take on a major role in the administration of the ASO, and, since 1994, conducted and was music director of the Serenta at the Peabody Conservatory where she was a member of the wind and chamber music faculty. Last October, she and her husband, John Shirley-Quirk, internationally renowned bass-baritone, collaborated with Roger Brunyate, director of the Baltimore Peabody Opera Theater, on a Halloween orchestral presentation for children. She insisted on personally writing and recording the educational materials sent to county music teachers to prepare their students for the concert. "She was always a fount of ideas and had this massive energy," Brunyate told The Sun. "I cannot believe that any conductor anywhere spent as much time over a children's concert as she did." Conveying her own love of classical music to audiences, most especially to children, was her passion.
In 1973 Ms. Watkins was appointed principal oboist of the National Symphony, becoming one of the few women then occupying a principal chair in a major American orchestra. She left after eight years to further her career as a soloist and to pursue conducting, which she studied at the Peabody Conservatory. This year the Peabody awarded her its highest conducting degree, the Artist Diploma.
During her career as oboist, she played with the Moscow Philharmonic, the Vienna Radio Symphony, and England's City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and gained international recognition as a conductor. Her first compact disc, featuring her husband and soprano Linda Mabbs performing music by Dominick Argento, was released last fall.
By all accounts, Ms. Watkins' exuberant sense of humor complemented her profes- sional achievements and her commitment to hard work. Just before she graduated from Oberlin's Conservatory she took a rubber stamp and covered the walls of the reed- making room with "Sally Watkins." When asked why, she explained, "I had to leave my stamp on Oberlin."
Ms. Watkins is survived by her husband and their three children, and by her mother and sister.