Remarkable Woman: Ann Murray

Thanks to the indefatigable Ann Murray, Chicago enjoys a weekly gift of classical music under the world's largest Tiffany glass dome.

And Al Booth's dream lives on.

Those Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts are the brainchild of the late, legendary Elias "Al" Booth. Free, held at lunch in the Chicago Cultural Center each Wednesday for some 450 people and showcasing classical music's rising stars, Booth named them after pianist Myra Hess, whose lunch-hour performances at London's National Gallery boosted morale during World War II.

Perhaps it's one reason the concerts have survived for 35 years, despite the havoc foisted on not-for-profits by the economy. Or perhaps it's because Booth is their guardian angel. Or maybe it's because Booth saw the pluck and resourcefulness in Murray when he tapped her to join his International Music Foundation in 1989.

The foundation, which Booth established 33 years ago, now runs the Hess concerts, Live Music Now! programs in Chicago schools as well as the annual gathering of thousands of voices to sing Handel's music for the Do-It-Yourself-Messiah.

Murray, who doesn't play an instrument and wasn't fed a steady diet of Bach, Bizet and Beethoven, was born and raised on a farm in Kirkliston, Scotland, that her father (grandfather before that) managed. "It was extreme blue-collar background. So I didn't grow up with classical music."

She worked on digs in central Syria, then spent six years digging up the sands of southeast Turkey in search of bits of the Bronze Age and helping manage the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara. While posted there, she met an archaeologist from Chicago, married and traveled here in 1986.

These days, the foundation feeds Chicago's appetite for classical music with almost 300 performances a year, thanks to Murray, its executive director since 2001, and two program coordinators who juggle logistics of the young artists and their schedules.

Q: Any music moments that have touched you?

A: The encore of the (Do-It-Yourself-Messiah) chorus this year. The sound is all consuming, everybody is up on their feet singing ... I got teary eyed and I thought, we did it again. But I get moved frequently here on Wednesdays (Myra Hess concerts) with the talent that's up there. ... We had (British violinist) Nigel Kennedy before he was punk and ... (Irish pianist) Barry Douglas who shortly thereafter won the Tchaikovsky competition. It's very moving to see the connection between the talent and audience. It's kind of magical. ... They're really out there wishing the artist well and the young musicians get caught up in that. They feed off it. So this audience is very special, they're very loyal and I love them to pieces.

Q: Do you ever listen to any other type of music?

A: Tango. The music first attracted me, but I love to watch it. For about 15 years, I'd see tango and think, my God, I must learn it. Then last autumn, I thought: Darn it I'm turning 65 next year. If not now, when? So I signed up and go to this wonderful tango studio, Tango Che. I've been taking lessons there since September and I had my 65th. birthday party there. It was fabulous.

Q: What's your greatest attribute?

A: People would see it as boring, but I would see it as methodical. Boringly methodical.

Q: Secret to success?

A: Persistence.

Q: And your greatest fault?

A: In the work realm, risk avoidance. When I look at Al (Booth), I think, "My God, how did he do this?" But "risk avoidance" were not words he would have understood. He'd just have a great idea and say "OK, let's just go and do this." And he would keep at it until he'd done it. That's not my personality, but I got to inherit the wonderful things he created and get to continue them.

Q: What was the greatest lesson you learned from your parents?

A: From my mother, it was being careful with money. She was a typical Scot. She was one of these people who would never get furniture until she put the cash down. That's a good lesson for someone who's working for a not-for-profit where we're looking at both sides of a penny before it goes out the door.

Q: Who's your living hero?

A: I wouldn't use the word "hero". ... But there are certainly people I just admire tremendously. Probably top of the list for me, would be (violinist) Rachel Barton Pine. She has so much courage and determination and grit to get through the very painful aftermath of her accident. She rebuilt her career and was doing so at a time when she was still going through a lot of medical difficulties. She's just an incredibly brave woman. And it's not just about Rachel — she's very active helping young musicians. Through her foundation, she lends instruments, she lends bows to folks that she sees that have talent but don't have the means to get a decent instrument. So she is spreading the goodness around and I admire that enormously.

Q: Your favorite book is Charles Dickens' "Bleak House." Why?

A: I love the characters. ... Now anybody who loves Dickens is going to say they're all like that. The characters in all of them are fabulous. But I really took to "Bleak House." One of my favorite characters — and I love the way it was done in the televised version — was Mr. Guppy. I just think he's an adorable character with all his flaws and his faults.

Q: Your professional mantra?

A: Oh, get on with it!

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