Music was a birthright for this Texas transplant
Leslie Blackburn Harlow searches for the words to describe how she feels when she’s playing the viola with a symphony or chamber music quartet. "It’s a lot like downhill skiing, like you’re flying."
Harlow has flown high and far for almost 25 years now as a violist with the Utah Symphony and co-founder and director (with her husband) of the prestigious Park City International Chamber Music Festival.
She was born and grew up in Lubbock, Texas, the oldest of Margaret and Gene Blackburn’s three daughters. She remembers a house filled with music. "My parents loved classical music, especially violin concertos. I grew up listening to Tchaikovsky and the other romantic composers."
"There was always a piano in the house," Harlow explains. "When I was a baby my dad would put me on his lap and I’d bang on the keys. By the time I was four, the banging had become little tunes. It seemed only natural that I would learn to play."
"When I was in fourth grade, they tested us at school to see if we had ‘musical ears.’ Symphony musicians came in and played all the different stringed instruments. I remember the beautiful sound of the viola and wondering why anyone would want to play the violin or cello after hearing that." The viola has been her instrument ever since.
She plucks other random childhood memories from the depository. "One day I woke up and there was a horse in our front yard. I thought we could keep it," she grins. She fondly recalls family camping trips to New Mexico and her Shetland sheepdog, a.k.a. Sheltie, named Chuckles.
Harlow played viola in school orchestra through high school, graduating from Lubbock’s Monterey High. "My dad wanted me to go into medicine, but I wanted to be a professional musician. He balked at the idea. I told him it was his fault. He shouldn’t have put that piano in the living room."
She went on to take a bachelor’s degree in music performance at Lubbock’s Texas Tech University and began work on her master’s.
"In graduate school, I auditioned for the Oklahoma Symphony and got the job," says Harlow. "I moved to Oklahoma City and commuted to Lubbock to finish my graduate degree." She soon bought a home in Oklahoma and settled comfortably into her chair with the Symphony.
That might have been the end of the story, had it not been for a colleague and mentor at the Symphony who encouraged her to continue her music education. "I had performed in a master’s class in Texas for Paul Doktor, the famous violinist, so I auditioned to become his student at the Juilliard School in New York City," recounts Harlow.
She was offered a scholarship to Juilliard, the most prestigious music school in North America. Without hesitation, she packed up and moved to the Big Apple, quite an adventure for a young woman from Lubbock.
"It was a magical time," says Harlow. I was in my late 20s by then, a pretty old student by Juilliard standards. But, because of that, I think I was a little more grounded than some of the younger students. Like a lot of New York musicians, I played on the street sometimes to make extra money. I met the concert master of the New York Philharmonic that way and he was one of the first guest artists I invited to play in Park City at the chamber music festival."
During the summers, she played and taught at music festivals in North Carolina and Missouri.
After completing her master’s at Juilliard, which included a European tour, Harlow moved to Utah. "I came out here on spring break during my first year at Juilliard," she says. "I went downhill skiing for the first time at the old Park West resort and I was hooked. I came out again by invitation to substitute with the Utah Symphony and spent some time in southern Utah. That’s when I decided to move to Utah. It reminded me of west Texas, only with mountains."
Harlow was soon a busy young woman, juggling a wide variety of jobs. She began playing with the Utah Symphony when they needed her. She taught chamber music for two years at Brigham Young University and is now an adjunct faculty member at Utah Valley University.
Concurrently, she became principal violist for the Ballet West Orchestra. In her "spare time" she offered private lessons.
She met Russell Harlow while playing with the Utah Symphony. "He’d been playing for the symphony since he was just 21 years old," explains Harlow. "He invited me out to coffee and was a good listener. I thought, ‘what a nice guy,’ and, for a brief moment, considered lining him up with a friend of mine. Then I said to myself, ‘what, are you crazy?’"
They were married a few years later. "We still celebrate two anniversaries that first date for coffee and our wedding day."
The couple moved from Salt Lake City to Park City in the 1980s, renting for a few years before building a house in Silver Springs. They live there comfortably with Leslie’s grandmother and a trio of dogs (see Vital Statistics).
"We brought my grandmother, Gretchen, up from Lubbock a few years ago to take care of her," says Harlow. "She’s 103 years old but still doing very well. I think she may be the oldest resident in Park City."
Soon after her arrival in town, she set to work creating the Park City International Chamber Music Festival, now the oldest chamber music festival in Utah. "I’d wanted to do that since I first visited here," says Harlow. "The first years of the festival were at Deer Valley. I thought, maybe if they really like it they’ll give me a condo. I’m still waiting on that one," she laughs.
Harlow is one of two principal violists for film and television scores recorded in Utah studios. She performed the viola solos for the films, "Murder in the First" and "Surviving Picasso."
In addition to their busy schedules with the Utah Symphony and their festival management duties here, the Harlows also manage and/or direct the Autumn Classics Music Festival, the New Music Consortium, the Sonolumina Chamber Orchestra and the Park City Film Music Festival.
Now well into her fourth decade as a professional musician, and after 24 years as co-founder and manager of the Park City International Chamber Music Festival, Blackburn Harlow shows no signs of slowing down. Though she’s a gifted musician with an impressive array of accomplishments, she remains an extraordinarily unpretentious woman. For her, it’s not about the accomplishments, accolades or applause. "It’s always been about playing the music," she muses. "It’s my way to express the beauty in life to lose myself in the music, like flying."
Favorite things to do: Walking and biking on the trails in Silver Springs; watching films
with her husband; grilling outside in the summer and fall.
Favorite foods: Spicy foods Mediterranean, Thai, Chinese, sushi. "Bring it on."
Favorite authors: Wallace Stegner, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Favorite performers/music: Violinist Jascha Heifetz, violist William Primrose, the
Berg String Quartet and the film score to "Lemony Snicket."
Pet Park City peeves: "The occasional traffic problems when we’re late for work with
Animal companions: "Alfie, our little white terrier, very old but perky; Deacon, our Red
Heeler and resident ‘love pig’; Dolly, our beautiful
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