Obituaries

Lorna Cooke deVaron, 97, groundbreaking conductor at New England Conservatory

Mrs. deVaron was a pioneering woman in Boston’s conducting ranks.
New England Conservatory
Mrs. deVaron was a pioneering woman in Boston’s conducting ranks.

“Of course being a woman held me back,” Lorna Cooke deVaron, a pioneering woman in Boston’s conducting ranks, once said. “When you are a conductor, you are the supreme authority, and people are bound to resent that when it is represented by a woman.”

That conversation with a Globe music critic took place in 1978, and her observations were informed by her experiences during a successful 30-year conducting career that had taken her from Radcliffe College and Harvard University to Bryn Mawr College, and then to New England Conservatory, where she was founding director of choral activities.

Mrs. deVaron, who was 97 when she died of cerebrovascular disease on Oct. 6 in Rydal, Pa., may have underestimated the importance of her groundbreaking accomplishments, which included conducting decades of critically acclaimed performances in a job dominated by men.

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“The problems I had 30 years ago are not things that a young woman conductor even thinks about anymore,” she told the Globe four decades ago.

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Yet what she faced remains much on the minds of women who followed, taking their places on classical music podiums.

“To me she was the woman who made my own career possible — not because she founded the Choral Program at NEC, but because at 26 years old she was brilliant and fearless, and regardless of what others thought of her and her career choice, she persisted,” Erica Washburn, the conservatory’s current choral activities director, said in a tribute posted on the school’s website.

“She laid the groundwork for future generations of women to stand on podiums of their own and lead, without even realizing she was doing so, and she took every opportunity she could to remind me that no one does such things alone,” Washburn added.

Having achieved early success, Mrs. deVaron was not one to retire. She did so only reluctantly, and by degrees.

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She stepped down in 1988 from full-time duties at the conservatory. In 2006, at 85, she conducted a so-called “farewell” concert of the Conservatory Camerata, which she had continued to direct. For years afterward, she kept conducting a group of singers who wanted to work with her, and who called themselves the deVaronistas.

“The only thing you can say is that I have no plans to retire. Conductors go on and on,” she had told the Globe in 1978.

And just before her farewell concert 28 years later, she assured the Globe: “I have no plans to stop working while I can still raise a hand in the air.”

From early on, critics hailed performances she led. In 1953, when the New England Conservatory Alumni Chorus presented Irving Fine’s “The Hour-Glass” and other works at Jordan Hall, Globe critic Cyrus Durgin praised the “formidable technical mastery” the singers displayed under Mrs. deVaron’s guidance.

“In substance and execution, this was one of the concerts that will be remembered,” Durgin wrote. “A musician with remarkable capacity for choral leadership, Mrs. deVaron has trained the New England Conservatory Alumni Chorus into a small crack organization.”

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She often was called upon to conduct premieres of works by top composers, such as when she led the New England Conservatory Chorus after it joined with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to present the first US performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Third Symphony, “Kaddish,” at Symphony Hall in 1964.

The chorus, Globe critic Michael Steinberg wrote, “was impeccably prepared by Lorna Cooke deVaron, and superb in every way.”

Nevertheless, “without wanting to take anything away from our great musical experiences with the BSO, a conductor always feels the deepest satisfactions with her own performances,” she said in the 1978 interview. “I am particularly proud of the world premieres our chorus has done — music by Irving Fine, Daniel Pinkham, Donald Martino. The opportunity and responsibility to perform new music is something too many groups shirk.”

Inspired by her upbringing, Lorna Cooke learned to never shirk anything. The second of five children, she was born in Western Springs, Ill., spent her early years in Chicago and Peoria, Ill., and was a teenager when her family moved to Pawtucket, R.I.

Her father, Vernon Walter Cooke, was a Congregational minister. Her mother, the former Hazel Watts, was a musician of wide-ranging talents — a pianist, organist, choir mistress, lyricist, and composer who wrote musicals for children. Later in life, Mrs. deVaron would consider her mother’s aspirations unfulfilled.

“I was very fortunate. I was lucky in my mother,” she wrote in an unpublished memoir, but added that Hazel “should have had more because she was very bright and very talented. It made me think, ‘I’m not going to let a man treat me the way my father treated my mother.’ I was lucky I got a man who helped me.”

That man was Jose deVaron. Mrs. deVaron, who graduated from Wellesley College with a bachelor’s degree in music, met him while attending Radcliffe College, from which she received a master’s. He was in the Army, which had sent him to Harvard to study Russian during World War II. Her father officiated at their 1944 wedding in Pawtucket.

A longtime business executive, Mr. deVaron at one point commuted to Denver for a couple of years to be president of an energy firm, and then resumed working in Boston rather than interrupt his wife’s career.

“They wanted him to move there, and our children and I wanted to stay here,” she recalled for his obit, after he died in 2006.

At Wellesley, Mrs. deVaron had studied with the renowned French composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger. As a graduate student, she had studied conducting with G. Wallace Woodworth, and served as assistant conductor of the Radcliffe Choral Society. Mrs. deVaron also formerly helped conduct the Harvard Glee Club.

While finishing her master’s, she joined Bryn Mawr’s faculty and conducted its choir. In 1947, just a few months before giving birth to her first child, she returned to Boston to join the conservatory’s faculty and conduct its choir.

Along with her teaching, she brought the chorus to international prominence, leading the singers on tours throughout the country and to China, Israel, Europe, and the Soviet Union. She also conducted at Tanglewood in the summers.

Though principally a musician and conductor, Mrs. deVaron was known to family and friends as a brilliant polymath.

“I have never met anyone who could answer my questions as satisfyingly as she could,” said her daughter Joanna Reynolds of Denver. “She could answer questions from an ethical perspective, from a cultural perspective, from a theological perspective.”

Still, the musical life of Mrs. deVaron — known to students as Mrs. D and to colleagues such as Bernstein as “Cookie” — remained a dominant part of family activities. From an early age, her children accompanied their father to Mrs. deVaron’s concerts.

“There was an incredible richness to it,” Tina deVaron, a musician in New York City, said of her mother’s life.

In addition to her two daughters, Mrs. deVaron leaves two sons, David of Somerville and Alexander of Philadelphia; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

A service has been held, and a memorial gathering and concert in Boston will be announced.

“She was working so hard in her craft that she didn’t step back and look at it in terms of feminism,” Tina said of her mother’s groundbreaking career. “She didn’t realize she was part of a movement.”

In the 2006 Globe interview, as Mrs. deVaron looked back on a career that had lasted more than six decades, she said women are better-suited to be choral conductors.

“Women do well with choruses because they understand the intimate emotions the choral literature expresses,” she said, “and they know how to deal with people.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.