Park City Beethoven Festival founder Leslie Harlow dies￼
Violist spread her love of chamber music throughout Utah
The Park City and global classical music community lost one of its biggest performers and cheerleaders when Leslie Blackburn Harlow died Saturday.
Russell Harlow, her husband of 37 years, says Leslie was an “exquisite woman.”
“She was kind, loving, gentle and, as I liked to tease her — Texas polite,” he said.
Born in 1953 in Lubbock, Texas, Harlow was the oldest of three sisters born to parents who loved classical music, which led her to a lifelong passion.
Harlow was 10 when her elementary school held an event to introduce the children to string instruments, according to Russell.
“There were violins, cellos and violas, (and) the kids were asked which instruments they would like to play,” he said. “After hearing them play, Leslie fell in love with the viola. As a matter of fact she couldn’t understand why the other children wanted to play the violins and cellos, because the viola was so beautiful.”
Harlow studied viola and was introduced to the playing of the great violist William Primrose, Russell said.
“After graduating from Texas Tech University as a viola major, Leslie won the post of associate principal viola in the Oklahoma Symphony,” he said.
After a few years, Harlow left Oklahoma to study at the renowned Juilliard School in New York City with violist virtuoso Paul Doctor. After graduating from Juilliard she moved to Salt Lake City and played with the Ballet West Orchestra and, later, the Utah Symphony.
While in Utah, Harlow discovered the beauty of Deer Valley, which was a brand new ski resort in 1983, Russell said.
“The little town of Park City was fertile ground for a classical music festival,” he said. “Then and there she decided to found the Deer Valley Chamber Music Festival that later became the Park City Chamber Music Festival and evolved into the Beethoven Festival Park City.”
Harlow’s time in New York City connected her with some of the world’s finest classical musicians, and they all came to perform at her festival in Park City without hesitation, Russell said.
“Violinists, cellists and pianists of the highest caliber came to Park City to help make the music festival the wonderful event that it has become,” he said.
The festival is the longest-running chamber music festival in Utah, and will celebrate its 40th anniversary this season, according to Russell.
Dr. Donna Fairbanks, violinist and associate professor of music at Utah Valley University who has performed regularly with the Beethoven Festival, fondly remembers the first time she met Harlow, in the early 1990s at Brigham Young University.
“She had driven down from Park City to coach just one chamber group, and she was so incredibly happy to be there,” Fairbanks said. “I remember thinking, first, how extraordinary for someone to drive an entire hour to coach just one group, and, second, it struck me how happy she was.”
Fairbanks said that enthusiasm bled into Harlow’s playing.
“Leslie was a consummate performer,” she said. “Her generosity was evident in every performance. I felt a sense of freedom when we performed together because she was so eager to blend. It has been an absolute joy to perform with Leslie and Russell.”
Edward Reichel, friend of the Harlows and former music critic for The Deseret News, said Harlow was “without doubt” the most passionate and intense person when it came to chamber music that he had ever met.
“Leslie had a remarkable and enviable amount of energy,” Reichel said. “Not only did she work behind the scenes promoting the festival, but she and Russell played at nearly every concert. I always wondered how she managed to find time to sleep. Or even if she ever did sleep.”
Throughout her life, Harlow saw the importance of passing down her knowledge and passion of chamber music to the youth, and from 1989 to 2001 she initiated the Park City Young Artist Institute, which created an opportunity for young musicians to study and practice chamber music.
Harlow also worked with Park City-based arts and music nonprofits, including the Park City Institute, Park Silly Sunday Market and Mountain Town Music, to further expose the Beethoven Festival to the community.
Brian Richards, executive director of Mountain Town Music, a nonprofit that worked with Harlow in presenting free chamber music concerts in City Park during the summer, said Harlow was “an amazing asset to and a steward of the arts and cultural scene in Park City and Summit County.”
“I had the pleasure of working with her and her husband Russell to bring the Beethoven Festival to City Park over 10 years ago and it has been one of our greatest accomplishments,” Richards said. “To be able to provide world class chamber music in City Park, which is accessible to all, while skateboarders cruise by has been a joyful dichotomy. Leslie will truly be missed.”
Harlow’s love of music wasn’t just focused on the Wasatch Back and Wasatch Front, said Crystal Young, executive director of the Utah Cultural Alliance, a nonprofit designed to advance arts, entertainment, culture, museums, film and humanities.
“The art world lost one of our greatest champions with the loss of Leslie Harlow,” Young said. “She brought the gift of music to so many across our state. She broadened perspectives, inspired and changed lives. We will miss her greatly.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world and sent everyone into quarantine, Harlow thought up ways she could still present chamber music to the public, Russell said.
“We came up with the idea of presenting our recorded performances from past festivals — over 800 recordings,” he said. (Along with Sunday premiers the concerts of past premiers are available at any time for listeners at youtube.com/@parkcitychambermusicsociet938/videos.)
Amid doing all this, Harlow played regularly with the Utah Symphony and with the local recording industry, according to Russell.
Russell said he has been moved by the outpouring of love and appreciation the musical community has shown after his wife’s passing.
“Leslie was the kindest, gentlest, most accepting soul I have ever met, and (I) consider myself blessed to have spent 37 wonderful years as her partner and husband,” he said.
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