By MIDGE PIERCE
Some families just shine. They are the ones who make great things happen by going the extra mile in their community service.
Consider my neighbors: For years, Portland native and renowned Hollywood violinist David Ewart went an extra 2,000 miles; commuting here weekly from Los Angeles, California to care for his aging parents Hugh and Esther, often affectionately known as Essie.
In the process, he carried on his family’s long musical legacy and tireless support for the Oregon Symphony, opening its 125th season Saturday, October 2nd.
Hugh & Essie
In addition to a 50-year symphony career, Hugh was a mentor to aspiring artists; teaching violin in schools, homes, and at a camp for young musicians. He raised David on instruments, occasional bagpipe processions, and an innate inability to sit still.
Hugh serenading Essie and their new-born child David.
Peripatetic son David credits his father for immersing him in the music that has shaped his perspective and careet: “The beauty and complexity of life has always been inextricably defined by music. It’s the language I speak.”
He adds that he would have played in the symphony but for a “little music business that took me off course.” David was a key violinist in Hollywood for decades with film scores like “The Watchman”, “Planet of the Apes” and “A Bugs Life” among others.
After Hugh’s passing in 2017 at the age of 93, David increased his commutes to twice and sometimes thrice weekly to care for his mother Essie, a symphony benefactor until her death last May. Essie— who claimed no musical ability whatsoever— founded the Mt. Tabor Symphony Auxiliary that was able to raise significant funds for some 55 years.
Symphony CEO and President Scott Showalter says supporters like the Ewarts have been invaluable. “The Oregon Symphony is an integral part of the Ewart family’s history starting with Hugh’s three-decade legacy as Concertmaster and matched by Essie’s years of volunteer leadership of Friends of the Oregon Symphony including service on our Board of Directors. The Ewarts’ support over the decades has been invaluable to the Oregon Symphony’s growth and success.”
Musical celebration of life
As Essie’s health declined, David stepped up to continue her annual Valentine’s Day and Flag Day fund-raisers for the symphony. Two weeks before the June Flag Day event, Essie died.
David and vocalist / pianist Leslie Garman resolved the show would go on with Essie’s favorite tunes ranging from “Yankee Doodle” to scores from the animated classic “Quest for Camelot”. In keeping with Essie’s fascination with flags around the world, historian Ted Kaye of the Portland Vexillological Association delivered a talk about the quirky symbolism of flags.
David Ewart carrying on the tradition of holiday fund raisers for the Oregon Symphony.
Video by Skye Linninger
A highpoint of the evening was Tim Greenridge’s rendition of “Deep River”. Greenridge has been the main soloist at the Portland Singing Christmas Tree for more than 30 years.
Despite the pandemic, both the Valentine’s and Flag Day events raised thousands for the symphony. The family also requested memorial contributions to the Oregon Symphony in Essie’s name.
David’s sometimes planned, sometimes spontaneous front-yard pop-up concerts continued throughout the season. After a musical celebration of his mother’s life, Ewart shook his shock of white-blonde hair, nodded to pianist Garman and weaved through his yard with Highland fiddling renditions of “Summertime” and themes from films like “Forest Gump”, “Cinema Paradiso”, and “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
Childhood friend Stewart Schultz jazzed the night up with Miles Davis-style improvisation. Neighbor Andrea Wild kicked up her heels to old Irish tunes.
Essie in front of the Oregon Symphony with a young local musician.
The legacy continued
Bereavement has likewise strengthened David’s determination to uplift the Auxiliary. The group’s most visible fund-raiser was an annual tulip drive at the Ewart home. Originally members handpicked the flowers sold at the downtown Nordstrom.
Blisters from picking, bundling, and wrapping bunches of ten were an inevitable part of the fun, according to Auxiliary co-founder Evie Brim who says, “Essie was the reason the Auxiliary got together and stayed together.” She credits Essie’s passion with helping a part-time ensemble become a major orchestra.
Essie with Mt. Tabor Symphony Auxiliary co-founder Jeanne Shultz in mid 1960s.
Musician and writer Sandra Hyslop says David inherited Essie’s powers of persuasion. “She recruited me to the Tabor Symphony Auxiliary even though I lived nowhere nearby.” Over the years, members got to know performers personally, gained a deep musical appreciation and became lifelong ticket holders and benefactors. Surviving members meet infrequently now but seek to pass tulips and fund-raising prowess to a younger generation.
The Ewart family is among many who have helped keep Portland’s arts and music alive with pop-up concerts and organizational support during the Pandemic. Perhaps their example inspires you to be an arts donor, volunteer, or supporter too.
The 2021/22 Season launches on October 2 with the debut of new Music Director David Dazmayr conducting. To support their work and honor Esther “Essie” Ewart, visit https://www.orsymphony.org/support-us/give/. For tickets, visit www.orsymphony.org.
Midge Pierce is a recovering media consultant and personality who worked from East to West Coast Coast on newspapers, in TV for network and public television affiliates and for cable programmer Starz where she ran a channel for young people known as tweens. She is currently a semi-retired freelance writer in SE Portland enjoying time spent with grandkids. She is passionate about finding balance between old Portland and new.