ORINDA — Elizabeth Birnbaum, principal violist of the Contra Costa Chamber Orchestra for the past decade, died April 6 at her Orinda home after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She was 84.
Tim Smith, musical director and conductor of the orchestra, said "Beth" was not only an expert player but a loyal supporter of the orchestra with her time, finances and talents in helping recruit name soloists to play with the group. And her dedication to the music, he said, likely prolonged her life, as she continued to perform as her illness advanced.
"She was a poster child for what it means to be making music lifelong," Smith said.
Receiving her master's degree in music from the Eastman School of Music in New York in 1948, Birnbaum went on to teach viola and violin at Baylor University and later at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Concurrent with her teaching assignments — both as a faculty instructor and as a private teacher — she played viola in orchestras, including the Great Neck Symphony in New York state, the San Rafael-based Marin Symphony and, for a decade starting in 1997, the Contra Costa Chamber Orchestra.
"She played all her life, taught for many years and played in various (chamber) groups here" in Contra Costa, said Nancy Marvel, Birnbaum's daughter-in-law. She had been practicing her viola as late as the beginning of the year, before she became too sick to continue, Marvel said.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, she began studying music at age 6. In 1950, at the invitation of composer Roy Harris, Elizabeth played viola at the first Cumberland Forest Music Festival, in Sewanee, Tenn. There, she met her future husband, Jesse Birnbaum, then a journalist with NBC sent to cover the festival. They married soon after.
Between 1973 and 1976, while living in London and Paris, Birnbaum performed as a soloist at the Ibiza Music Festival in Spain. Upon a return to New York in 1977, Elizabeth began a 20-year career at The Dalton School, teaching music and string instruments. The Birnbaums moved to Orinda in 1997 to be closer to family, Marvel said.
A sophisticated, elegant woman, Birnbaum was also outgoing, making friends with the musicians with whom she played, with her instructors and students and with neighbors, including those in Orinda Woods, where she and Jesse lived.
"She made a science of making friends because she moved around a lot," Marvel said. "She was a great host, and was a great socializer."
Smith said Birnbaum was an inspiration to the his orchestra's musicians, and to him.
"She was an embodiment of how music could keep you alive, and keep you energized," he said.
Birnbaum is survived by her husband of 59 years; sons, David of Piedmont and Nathan of Los Angeles; sister, Blanche Johnson of Bronxville, N.Y.; four grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.
A celebration of her life will be held at an as-yet-undetermined date. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made in Elizabeth's memory to the Crowden School of Music in Berkeley.