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Shirley A. Mathews, harpsichordist, Peabody teacher and artistic director of Pro Musica Rara, dies

Shirley A. Mathews, a noted harpsichordist and former Peabody Conservatory of Music teacher who served as artistic director of Pro Musica Rara for 17 years, died Sept. 30 of complications from Parkinson’s disease at her home in Freeport, Maine.

The former longtime resident of Field Street in Woodberry was 80.

“Shirley was energetic, feisty and demanding, but was fun to be around,” said Allen Whear, a cellist, who has been artistic director of Pro Musica Rara since he succeeded Ms. Mathews in 2003.

“She did a great deal for Pro Musica Rara and was always a pleasure to work with. I played with Shirley for 13 or 14 years under her leadership,” said Mr. Whear, who lives in New York. “She was a good friend, an important musician, and I am saddened by her passing.”

“Shirley was an excellent harpsichord player. She shared her techniques and style of baroque music with the rest of the members of Pro Musica Rara,” said Joseph Turner, retired Baltimore Symphony Orchestra principal oboist.

“She helped develop our style, but was never contentious. After all, we are all pretty intense when doing this thing,” the Mount Washington resident said with a laugh. “There were never any fights.”

“In the area of performing historic chamber music, she was a giant,” said Penny Schwarz, a longtime friend and Pro Musica Rara board member for 35 years.

“She had a caring manner and everyone loved Shirley, but she could be tough,” Ms. Schwarz said. “She wanted to preserve music that was played on original period instruments.”

Shirley Ann Forrest was the daughter of Roy Forrest, a United Press International reporter and editor, and Myrtle Forrest. She was born in Houston, but her father’s career carried the family to Royal Oak, Mich., a suburb of Detroit.

After graduating from Royal Oak High School in 1954, she enrolled as a piano major at the University of Michigan. She attended there a year, studying piano under renowned instructor and performer Benning Dexter before dropping out to pursue her own professional music career in the Detroit area.

During this period she met John Mathews, a double bass player, and they married in 1956.

She also studied at Michigan under John Challis, a harpsichord maker, and fell under the spell of the instrument.

“The first time I played one I fell in love with it,” she told the old Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1963 interview. “You use the hands and wrists to play a piano, but only the fingers for a harpsichord. It has a delicate touch, and must be accurate.”

In 1957, she and her husband moved to a home in the 1400 block of Bolton St. in Bolton Hill. He had been named principal double bass player for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and also joined the Peabody faculty.

From 1960 to 1972, she and her husband led a concert series at Park School and Goucher College. They divorced in 1972.

In 1962, Ms. Mathews purchased her first harpsichord from Mr. Challis — she later bought another from William Dowd, a Boston harpsichord maker — and embarked on two European tours with her husband. She played the harpsichord and he performed on the double bass and the viol da gamba.

“It was a period of transition in harpsichord construction. because so few listeners had heard a fine, acoustically vibrant American harpsichord designed in the style of surviving originals,” wrote her husband of 39 years, Rodney J. Regier, who builds period forte pianos and harpsichords, in a biographical profile of his wife.

“Shirley said folks would often ask her where were the wires to the amplifier that made her instrument so full and live,” he wrote.

In 1964, Ms. Mathews made her New York debut in Carnegie Recital Hall. A 1971 profile in The Evening Sun said she was “rated as one of the finest harpsichordists of her generation.”

In 1968, she returned to college and obtained a bachelor’s degree in art history from Goucher College. Two years later she joined the faculty of St. Timothy’s School, where she taught until 1979 when she moved to Freeport.

She also had been a Peabody faculty member since 1970, teaching baroque period masters and an early music program.

Baltimore remained the center of her musical life, but Maine was her home. Ms. Mathews led a hectic teaching schedule that began with her commuting by air to Baltimore on Sundays, then returning home Wednesday evenings. She also taught at Bowdoin College.

“Shirley was my teacher, mentor and friend for more than 40 years. When she played it was inspiring because of her focus,” said Amy Rosser, who had been a student at Peabody in the late 1970s, and lives in Litchfield, Conn.

“She cracked the whip. She taught me how to analyze the music and to think about how I played — which gave me a deeper understanding of music,” said Ms. Rosser, a music teacher at Carrington Elementary School in Waterbury, Conn. “I didn’t know what hard work was until I worked with Shirley.”

In 1986 she was named artistic director of Pro Musica Rara, Baltimore’s resident early-music ensemble founded in 1974. It is composed of professional players who explore early works and performance. Their repertoire included the music of Bach, Locatelli, Mozart, Beethoven, Scarlatti and other masters.

“We can never know for certain exactly how this music sounded,” she told The Baltimore Sun in a 1998 interview. “But just having the right equipment is half the battle, because then the music begins to mean something.”

For eight summers, she also led a Music in the Meetinghouse in Yarmouth, Maine — program similar to Pro Musical Rara.

She retired from Peabody in 1994 and Pro Musica Rara in 2003. In 2002, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and progressive supranuclear palsy.

“Her last public concert was in the summer of 2002. She knew something was wrong, but she found her way through,” her husband said.

He described her as being “elfin in stature but large in heart,” and “deeply intelligent, creative, witty and irreverent.”

When Ms. Mathews wasn’t practicing or studying musical scores and music history, she enjoyed cooking, gardening and painting floral garlands on harpsichord soundboards.

“Shirley was so much fun to be around,” said Sharon Pineo Myer, a BSO violinist who lives in Baltimore. “She loved making jokes, eating and was an incredible cook.

“She liked working in her perennial garden. Anything that was beautiful always brought her joy,” Ms. Myer said. “She was a huge friend who I will miss dearly.”

She also joined her husband in renovating an old farmhouse they had purchased in Freeport.

“Although pearls and black concert gowns were her frequent dress, in one of her favorite photos of herself she wore a hardhat and was swinging a crowbar at a deteriorated fiberboard kitchen wall,” he wrote.

“The illness dimmed her, but never extinguished her spark,” her husband wrote. “Using a folding wheelchair, she continued to attend concerts, visit art museums and enjoy what human imagination had created.”

Plans for a memorial concert with Pro Musica Rara are incomplete.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by a brother, Lynn Forrest, of Nashville; and several nieces and nephews.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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