Symphony Fueled Cellist’s Passion For Music
Eric Dahlin grew up surrounded by music — though his parents, both musicians, never pressured him to follow in their footsteps. By the age of 16, he had committed himself to the cello, and he was invited to join the Hartford Symphony when he was only 19.
He died suddenly on Oct. 12, stunning his family, friends, students and audiences, who knew him as a gentle, talented cellist who found a special pleasure in performing chamber music and playing in string quartets.
“His passion for music is the first thing that moved everyone and inspired everyone,” said Carolyn Kuan, the music director of the symphony. “When he made music, he was passionate and engaged. He loved music. Eric was very beloved, and [the symphony] will certainly not be the same for me.”
Eric Dahlin was 57 when he died at his home in Simsbury after a morning jog. The cause has still not been determined.
“It was a tragic loss of a very gentle soul,” said John Van Kouwenhoven, a Hartford luthier who makes and repairs stringed instruments.
Like many professional musicians, Dahlin had a hectic schedule. In addition to performing with the Hartford Symphony at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, he played at school programs, taught in the Community Division of The Hartt School, was an occasional pit player for Broadway shows like “The Lion King,” and conducted the Connecticut Doctors Orchestra. He played for the ballet and CONCORA, a local chorus, and was available as backup for church musicians at Easter or Christmas. One year, he toured with Andrea Bocelli, the popular tenor. “No gig was too humdrum,” said his mother.
He was the founder of Music Adventure; each year, he and his partner, Katie Kennedy, ran a program for 15 or so teenagers at Tenuta di Spannocchia, an idyllic country estate in Tuscany, where the students practiced, performed, toured the area and consumed the meals grown on the organic farm.
Dahlin, who was born on July 27, 1961, grew up in Minneapolis, where his father, Donald Dahlin, taught music theory and composition at a Minnesota community college, and his mother, Inger Dahlin, taught the violin and performed. As a young boy, he tried out the family’s Steinway grand piano, but showed more interest in the cello. When he was 8, he began studying with a well-known Minneapolis cellist, and during high school, his family spent a year outside London, where he took private lessons with Derek Simpson, a well-known English cellist. He joined a youth orchestra composed of college-age students who were taking music more seriously than his Minnesota classmates.
By the time the family returned to the U.S., nothing about Eric’s future in music was explicit, but “it was in the air,” Inger Dahlin said. Eric quit the swim team and joined a newly formed Twin Cities Youth Orchestra. “The first thing he said was, ‘We are going on tour to England,’ ” his mother said. In his senior year, Eric traveled alone to New York to audition for music schools, and The Hartt School accepted him; the fact that it was in a small city made it especially appealing. After graduating from Hartt with a bachelor’s degree in music, he got his master’s from the Yale School of Music.
During his second year at Hartt, he decided to get audition experience by trying out for the HSO. The auditions are blind: The committee is not told the age, gender or background of the candidates, and they cannot speak during the audition. He was invited to join in 1981.
“He must have been exceptional,” said Kuan, who was not the music director at that time. Dahlin had had a summer job that involved dirt and grease that ruined a coveted new pair of boots, and he told his family that he was against “work.” Music was different, he told them. “He didn’t consider playing the cello work,” said his mother, and despite the sometimes frenzied schedule and unpredictable income, he never wavered. Music was his passion.
Among the 82 orchestra members, he was known as a caring person. “He was always respectful of other musicians and never had an unkind word to say,” said Carole Olefsky, who also performs in the nine-person cello section. His leadership abilities and skill in communicating what was needed to improve a piece were factors in his promotion to assistant principal cellist in 2004, said Leonid Sigal, the concertmaster of the orchestra. “He was an absolute backbone of the section, very soft-spoken but he commanded this incredibly calm authority that was unifying for the entire string section.”
At the symphony’s opening concert last month, Dahlin performed as the principal cellist, playing in the Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók — “one of the greatest pieces of music,” said his mother.
“His playing was warm and sunny and magnanimous,” said Aaron Westman, a violinist who taught in the summer program. “He had that gift of being open and easy as a player and as a person.”
When he wasn’t practicing or teaching or performing, Dahlin frequently built elaborate imaginary architectural structures out of Legos with his two young sons or cooked for his family. Both boys are interested in music, but Dahlin “would never be a high-pressure parent,” said Van Kouwenhoven, who knew Dahlin well. “He was a nurturer who was very good at what he did but was not driven to a maniacal degree; he was well rounded and emotionally stable.”
Eric Dahlin is survived by his longtime partner, Katie Kennedy; his sons Martin and Elias; his younger brother Kai, a veterinarian; and his parents, Donald and Inger Dahlin. Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.
The Hartford Symphony plans to showcase some of its best players as it celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and Dahlin was scheduled to be a soloist in Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” in the season’s final concert next spring. Though Dahlin had played the piece before, it would have required a lot of work, but he was looking forward to it. “He loved playing music that was difficult,” said Kuan. “He’s going to be very much missed.”
The summer program will continue, Kennedy said. “It’s a lot of work, but when we’re there with those teenagers, some of whom have never been out of the country, and they are making music and playing together, you feel like it’s worth it. Eric was always up for an adventure. I need to keep doing it in his spirit.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. on Nov. 17 at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Ave., Hartford.
ERIC DAHLIN, a cellist, was invited to join the Hartford Symphony Orchestra when he was 19. He and his partner, Katie Kennedy, lived in Simsbury.