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Leslie Starr, musician and avid birder, dies

Leslie Elena Starr achieved a life list of more than 700 North American birds.
Leslie Elena Starr achieved a life list of more than 700 North American birds.

Leslie Elena Starr, who played the oboe with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and was a dedicated birder who loved the outdoors, died of a heart attack Feb. 12 at her home in Mount Washington. She was 70.

Born in Baltimore, she was the daughter of John E. Starr Sr., an attorney, and his wife, Frances Johnson, a homemaker. Raised in Annapolis, she was a 1968 graduate of Annapolis High School, where she played the oboe. She earned a degree at St. John’s College.

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“She had a lifelong love of adventure and immediately after college she traveled extensively and visited Europe, the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and India,” said her husband, Joseph Turner, retired Baltimore Symphony Orchestra principal oboe player.

While traveling, she contracted a bacterial infection, brucellosis, and recovered. She then enrolled at the Peabody Conservatory and earned a Bachelor of Music degree.

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She often performed Renaissance and Baroque music on period woodwind instruments, including the Baroque oboe.

“I met Leslie backstage at the Meyerhoff in 1983 when I had just joined the orchestra,” said Mary Bisson, a retired Baltimore Symphony Orchestra horn player. “She was quiet at first and in a couple of years later I played in a faculty woodwind quintet with her at Towson University and we became really good friends.

“She shared different parts of herself with different people. We often sat and chatted about things. She was soft-spoken, thoughtful, kind and contemplative. She loved cooking and made fantastic sourdough bread. We shared a common love of chocolate and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream — as well as cats.”

Ms. Starr taught oboe at Goucher College and the Baltimore School for the Arts, where her students included Katherine Needleman, now principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony.

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“I met her when I was 15 as a student and she was my teacher,” said Ms. Needleman. “I loved her as a teacher. You always knew where you stood with her. She was either happy or not. She never talked down to children or her students. She engaged me with interesting musical material. I always looked forward to my lessons with her.

“She got me my first job with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra. She showed me what she was working on in her professional playing and also showed me the tricks. She was very direct as a person. And it was not always obvious, but she was very warm. People were comfortable around her.”

She performed with Pro Musica Rara in Baltimore, Bach in Baltimore and the South Florida Symphony.

Ms. Starr was principal oboist of the Delaware Symphony, co-principal oboist of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, and a long-term substitute performer with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

With her husband, she enjoyed outdoor adventures and music. They explored the Grand Canyon and Berkshire Mountains, trekked up Mount Washington twice, and backpacked along the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts and Maine and the Long Trail in Vermont.

The couple spent many enjoyable afternoons sea kayaking on the Chesapeake Bay and Patuxent River.

While hiking in the Berkshires, she took up her husband’s interest in birds and eventually far surpassed him as a birder. She became active in the birding community and made friends with fellow enthusiasts.

“Because of Leslie I love birds and I sing to birds because of her,” said Ms. Bisson, who lives in Vermont. “She could identify them by the call, their sound. She could even identify a birdsong over the phone.”

Lynne Parks, an artist and fellow birder, said: “She was a giver as opposed to a taker. She mentored young members of the birding community. She looked out for women. I met her one day at Milford Mill — Villa Nova Park in Baltimore County. She was a generous and trusting friend.”

Ms. Starr achieved a life list of more than 700 North American birds (700 by 70 was her goal) and had a streak of 1,137 daily lists, which ended the day before her death, submitted to eBird, a citizen science organization sponsored by Cornell University.

“She was proud of her streak,” her husband said. “She loved owls, the colorful warblers in the spring during migration. One of her favorite birds is the painted bunting.”

Her husband said her work was instrumental in getting the American Chestnut Land Trust, a preserve in Calvert County, designated an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society.

Ms. Starr was a mentor to young birders whom she befriended and taught. Birders were listed under “B” on her cellphone — more than 200 of them.

She did not sit still, her friends said. Ms. Starr engaged in cross-country skiing, ice skating, swimming, and long walks in the neighborhood. She enjoyed puzzles, gardening and socializing with friends.

“She was a vibrant woman. She never slowed down, even later in life when she suffered from chronic back pain,” her husband said. “She delved further into playing the harpsichord and learning Spanish in her 60s. A week before her death, she started singing lessons.”

In addition to her husband of 40 years, survivors include her brother, John E. Starr Jr. of Annapolis; two stepsons, Malcolm Turner of Louisville, Kentucky, and Eric Turner of Miami; and six grandchildren.

A Zoom memorial will be held Sunday.

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