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Nancy Ellsworth: Living a life of music

By Staff | Aug 21, 2009

Nancy Ellsworth

When classical violinist Anne Eichorn traveled from her Boston home to perform in California, she took with her a little violin for the daughter of, her dear friend and accompanist, Wilhelmina Harbert. The gift was a perfect miniature of the real thing and when Nancy Harbert first picked up the bow and held the violin under her little chin, she was hooked. The girl’s fascination with the instrument was so obvious her parents immediately enrolled her in “proper” lessons. Within a year Nancy was playing on stage at the College Pacifica in her first recital. She was four years old.

Nancy Harbert grew up in Stockton, California with her mother, Wilhelmina – singer, pianist and professor of music at Pacifica College – and father, Ellis Harbert, Md. They were a musical family with the first gift Ellis gave his bride being a Chickering piano. Stockton was a little country town in those days. A little country college town. College Pacifica, today the College of the Pacific, offered cultural opportunities not usually afforded small towns in those days. It was the thirties and the Great Depression hit Stockton as it was everywhere elsehard.

Nancy went to the Stockton public school system, continuing to study her music and perform publicly. At the age of 11, Horace Brown, a professor of music at the college, had her playing with the Pacifica College orchestra. So extraordinary was her talent seasoned professionals like Lucie Bruch, niece of famous concert violinist and composer Max Bruch, eagerly took the opportunity to work with the child. Nancy said of her earliest years “All during this time I was studying privately. Always. I never thought of doing anything else but the violin. ” Her mother was a well-know singer and pianist and in demand as an accompanist for some of the greats of the day. This gave Nancy access to some of the great “ears” of the day.

Nancy was in her freshman year at Mills College in Oakland when World War II broke out giving Mills another platform for its well-known activism. The small woman’s college had a reputation for being ahead of its time attracting forward-thinking young women of high intelligence and talent from all over the world. It had a faculty of creative movers and shakers and a visiting faculty of music greats. There Nancy played for Nathan Abas, the concert master for the San Francisco Symphony; as well as Naoum Blinder. Blinder was also Issac Stern’s teacher. “A fiddle player” Stern called himself, has been hailed as “one of the supreme violinists of this century” and “the first American violin virtuoso.” Naoum Blinder was very selective about his students and he chose Nancy. She also studied with violin greats Horace Brown and Darius Milhaud. “The teaching at Mills was the reason I went there.” Upon graduation she had the opportunity to play for one of the world’s most prominent concert violinists, Efram Zimbalist, Sr. When Zimbalist heard Nancy Harbert play he immediately invited her to come to Philadelphia and study at The Curtis Institute. To this day, the eighty four year old Curtis Institute is considered to be one of the finest music conservatories in the world.

From Philadelphia Nancy moved to Denver where she played with the Denver Symphony Orchestra and then to Pittsburg and the Pittsburg Symphony. During those years she played for some of the truly greats of classical music but the star of her recollections is the legendary Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski’s celebrity was universal and he so widely known he was portrayed by Bugs Bunny in the 1948 Looney Tunes episode Long-Haired Hare. Who says Saturday morning cartoons aren’t educational?

It was playing for the Pittsburg Symphony when Nancy met Mark Ellsworth. Mark had the distinction of being the youngest violinist to ever play with the symphony he had joined at the age of 17. Nancy & Mark was a match made in Heaven. They fell in love, married and moved to Washington DC. There Mark became the concert master at the National Gallery Orchestra and opened the first Ellsworth Music Studio in Bethesda, Maryland.

From their new home in Maryland, Nancy and Mark started a family which eventually numbered five. First came four little boys: Bill, Roger, Grant and Brian. Then Maggie joined the family. During those years, Nancy also found time to perform with orchestras and in public and private making a name for her incredible talent among the cultural elite of Georgetown and Northwest DC. In case you have any doubt, every single one of the Ellsworth children was, and is, musically gifted.

The Kennedy Center officially opened to the public in 1971 and Nancy Ellsworth was tapped to be the first concert master of the Opera House Orchestra. Leonard Bernstein was known world-wide for enthusiastic approach to conducting and Nancy loved playing for him. “Lennie was not over acting, he couldn’t do otherwise.” she recalled, “I had a lot of respect for him because he was clear in his conducting. You could play anything for him and he was always there when you needed him. He was supportive and down to earth.”

The concert master is a link between the players and the conductor and Nancy was so deft at calming the choppy waters between the two and setting the bowing that when she retired, after twenty five years, it was as concert master Emeritus. The Kennedy Center award presented Nancy Ellsworth holds the inscription “25 years of outstanding dedication and distinguished service and exceptional artistry.” “I’ve competed in a man’s world all my life,” said Nancy. “I was one of the very first women allowed to be a concert master. You didn’t audition for the job you were invited and auditioned every time you played. Traditionally it was a man’s seat.” But her Mom had taught her well how to relate to both sides while maintaining your strength and individuality and Nancy was a quick study. “My mother was (in addition her music career) the first music therapist west of the Rockies. All her life in pioneering rubbed off. She was a role model of strength for me. “

In 1987 the Ellsworths found Shepherdstown. “We came out for lunch and fell in love with the town. There was a big old 1878 post civil war house for sale on German Street next to the Episcopal Church and we bought it.” As both Mark and Nancy were still working with their respective orchestras and performing together in chamber groups around the area, they prevailed upon their son Brian & family to pool their resources and live in the house while they lived in DC.

Brian had married a Bethesda ray of sunshine named Sylvia Nehemias and they were the parents of two little girls, Bridgett and Melissa. They moved to Shepherdstown when Sylvia was expecting a little boy. The little guy arrived shortly thereafter and they named him Mason. The Ellsworth Family became Shepherdstown celebrities from the first. When the patriarch Mark passed away a year later and the family business, Ellsworth Music Center, relocated from Bethesda to Shepherdstown and Charles Town.

Today the family home is a large friendly place on Heritage Road full of music and art, awards and memorabilia. The Ellsworths are a wonderful, close, beautifully talented and friendly family that is beloved by their adopted hometown, but never more so than now. You’d have to be very new to Shepherdstown not to have heard about the tragedy that befell the family a year ago. Mason Ellsworth was badly injured in an automobile accident one rainy afternoon last summer and has spent the past year in hospitals. The young man had just graduated from high school, was heading to Shepherd University on a music scholarship. He had a brilliant future ahead.

Mason came home to Shepherdstown three weeks ago but his road now is all about healing and it’s long. If numbers of friends and people who love you and prayers can insure restored health then Mason will be fine. No one has more of each. He also has 24/7 love and kisses from Sacco and Maybelle, his two dogs who became acquainted with the visiting hours at the hospital, for as we all know, the unwavering love of a pet has magic healing powers.

It’s impossible to even scratch the surface of the life of Nancy Ellsworth, especially in a few short pages. Today, she has ten grandchildren, five great grandchildren, and her music. She teaches students all over the area and performs in public and privately. Her accomplishments are astonishing. She has successfully cracked the glass ceiling of the great orchestra world and heralded as a concert master for world famous conductors.

But the importance of all of that pales in comparison to her most important appearance these days.. . A daily breakfast with Mason.