Abingdon violinist has a string of other interests


Clay Purdy is Harford County's Renaissance man -- concert violinist, inventor, electronics buff, music teacher, stay-at-home dad and Army veteran.

Mr. Purdy's violin virtuosity will be showcased Saturday when he performs as guest soloist with the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra.

His other talents are less public, but just as impressive.

While Mr. Purdy's wife, Nancy, a sales representative for a pharmaceutical firm, goes off to work each day, he stays in their Abingdon home and cares for their 16-month-old son, Christopher. In the afternoons, he teaches violin and viola to 21 students, ranging from kindergartners to high school students.

In his spare time, he has built a robot, set up a computer bulletin board for his astronomy club and created inventions such as an electric violin with a working telephone installed inside it.

"I come from a very remarkable family," said the slight, bespectacled musician.

Mr. Purdy was born into a family of musicians. His parents are professional keyboard players who handed each of their five children a stringed instrument as soon as their hands were big enough to hold it.

"I was the fourth, so I got the violin to round out the quartet," said Mr. Purdy with a grin.

All but one of the Purdy siblings have gone on to become professional musicians. They are scattered across the country from Georgia to Idaho.

Young Clay completed high school in three years and was only 16 when he enrolled at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York, where he received his bachelor's degree in violin performance.

But his musical career took an abrupt about-face when he decided to join the Army after college. With his aptitude for electronics, he was soon recruited into the 1st Ranger Airborne Battalion and was stationed in Savannah, Ga.

Nothing at the Eastman School of Music had prepared Clay for the 58 days of grueling Ranger training.

Asked if he worried about injuring his hands, he laughed. "I was too busy worrying about the stress fractures in my legs," he said. "We had one meal a day and no sleep while we ran through jungles, marched up and down mountains, and parachuted out of planes at night."

Although joining the Army perhaps had been his way of breaking out of his family's musical mold, Mr. Purdy found that he missed playing the violin -- so much that he designed and made a five-string electric violin in wood shop on the post.

"I played country-western, in rock groups, anything to keep my chops going, mostly in nightclubs on weekends," he recalled.

Mr. Purdy then decided to audition to play weekends for the Savannah Symphony but ran into some trouble when he went over his commander's head to the chaplain to get permission.

He left the Army as a sergeant and joined the Augusta Symphony in 1988, where he met his future wife, a violinist in the orchestra. She vividly recalls the day he first came to a rehearsal. It was not love at first sight. "He showed up with this weird Army haircut and horn-rimmed glasses," she said. "I thought he was a total nerd."

She was astounded when he took a seat in the front row as principal second violinist. But when she heard him play, her doubts dissolved.

"I was way in the back, down by the drums," said Mrs. Purdy, who considers herself an amateur musician. "When Clay was courting me, he promoted me to the front. After we were married, though, I was right back to the percussion section."

Pat Finch, executive director of the Augusta Symphony, remembers Mr. Purdy's "beautiful playing and intense musicianship. When Clay was playing, it was as though nothing in the world existed except the music."

He moved his music to Harford County in 1990, the year after he and Nancy were married.

These days Mr. Purdy is getting work as a free-lance violinist and, at 31, is doing well in the highly competitive world of classical music.

He is the principal second violinist in the Annapolis Orchestra and plays in the Baltimore Opera Orchestra. He has done some studio work and played a background solo on a television commercial for Towson Town Center.

A highlight of his career was a three-week trip to Australia with the Baltimore Actors Theatre, when he played in the orchestra for their production of "Phantom of the Opera."

A souvenir from that trip, a small oval opal, has been inlaid in Mr. Purdy's violin, an intricately carved instrument made of dark wood in 1901. It is valued at $20,000.

Mr. Purdy will be the featured solo violinist in the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra's season-opening performance at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Carroll School in Bel Air. He will play the suite from "Schindler's List," the haunting lyrical music for solo violin from John Williams' Academy Award-winning movie score.

Nancy Purdy also will be playing in the orchestra. Look for her somewhere near the drums.

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