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Boonsboro's Lawson knew music from the inside out

A Life Remembered

A Life Remembered

July 01, 2007|By MARLO BARNHART

Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail publishes "A Life Remembered." This continuing series takes a look back - through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others - at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about Walter A. Lawson, who died June 13 at the age of 84. His obituary appeared in the June 20 editions of The Morning Herald and The Daily Mail.

In the revered Prokofiev composition "Peter and the Wolf," the French horn provides the musical theme for the wolf, symbolically mimicking the deep and sinister nature of the beast.

That same haunting instrument also wove its magic through the life of Walter A. Lawson, first to study and play professionally, and later to construct from the ground up in his Boonsboro shop.

Walter died June 13 at the age of 84. As a tribute, an octet of Walter's fellow musicians performed at the memorial service for the man who brought Barry Tuckwell to Hagerstown to be the first conductor of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.


"The MSO wouldn't exist if not for him," said Paul Hopkins, who plays fourth horn in MSO, which was formed in 1981.

A day after the memorial service, Hopkins attended the MSO board of directors meeting as the musicians' representative. He confirmed the MSO will perform its MasterWorks I concert in October in Walter's memory.

"I proposed to the board that we also dedicate the second horn chair as the Walter A. Lawson Memorial Chair," Hopkins said, noting that decision will not be made for a while.

Owing his job to Walter, Hopkins said his eight years with the MSO have been his favorite in his own musical career.

Hopkins wasn't alone in his admiration of Walter's qualities - musical and otherwise.

"I knew Walter when I was a tuba player at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore in the late 1950s and he was playing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra," Hagerstown resident David Bragunier said.

Even then, Walter - a New York native - was dreaming of getting a property in the mountains and making French horns, Bragunier said.

His dream came true in the late 1970s, unfortunately as the result of a career-ending injury that limited his playing, but certainly not his passion.

At first, Walter started making mouthpieces, then pipes and later entire instruments while conducting all kinds of experiments to improve the horn, his family said.

Years earlier, while living in Baltimore, the Lawson family's entire existence revolved around music, according to his son, Bruce Lawson.

"We all grew up with musicians," Bruce said of himself and his two brothers, Duane and Paul, and their mother, Ann. "They were always in the house."

Walter loved talking with musicians, playing with other musicians and creating fine instruments, Bruce said. When it came to the "business" part of the French horn business, Bruce and his brothers took care of that.

With their father's death, the business has been sold and the three brothers are retiring, Bruce said.

"I'm not really a musician, but am an appreciator," Duane said. "I started at 12 cleaning the shop in Baltimore, for which I made $2 a week, which was a lot of money then."

Paul, the youngest son, said he also grew up in the shop, noting that their father had done the same - spending time with his own father, a master carpenter.

"At 14, I started making fiber mutes" for French horns, Paul said. Walter turned out his first complete French horn in the 1980s while still making parts for other French horns.

Now that the business has been sold to Kendall Betts, it will move to New Hampshire, where Betts will continue the horn-making tradition with the help of Walter's three sons as consultants.

Kendall, who plays French horn and teaches at the University of New Hampshire, said he is determined to keep the business going.

"I'd known Walter since 1965, when I came to Baltimore for a horn repair, and we became friends," Kendall said. "He made a mouthpiece for me."

Kendall later joined the Philadelphia Orchestra, but managed to stay close to Walter. He attended the June 27 memorial service for Walter, as did musicians from around the world.

That included Tuckwell who left the MSO in 1996. He had to rush back to his own horn camp in progress as soon as the memorial service concluded.

"I knew Walter for more than 20 years," Hopkins said. "He was my friend, my colleague and my mentor - in the small world of orchestral horn playing, he was a giant."

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