Fellow musicians and friends of Mary E. Whitaker continue to mourn far and wide.
Whitaker, who was shot and killed during an alleged burglary at her Westfield home on Wednesday, had just wrapped up her 36th season as part of Chautauqua’s Symphony Orchestra and was preparing to return to her full-time home in New York City.
“The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra is a family. It’s a musical family that exists for eight weeks in the summer and during that eight weeks, people come together from all over the United States and three foreign countries to make music,” said Marty Merkley, vice president and director of programming at Chautauqua Institution. “That was the feeling Mary had about this place, coming back every summer for 36 years.”
The 61-year-old played violin in her last concert with the group on Tuesday evening at the Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater and, according to Margie Cooper, a close friend and fellow symphony musician, even joined a group of musicians at Bellini Lounge in Mayville following the concert, before police say she went home and the crime occurred.
“We are all devastated,” said Cooper, who played with Whitaker in the CSO for 23 years and also attended Indiana University with Whitaker. “She had friends in the general community, but all over the musical community as well, and it’s true – everyone loved her. She was such an intelligent, wise, thoughtful, kind and generous person and she had friends in every walk of life.”
The CSO honored Whitaker on Friday evening during a memorial service at the Hall of Philosophy.
“The community as a whole at the institution and the family that is the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra is in tremendous shock at her death,” Merkley said.
After graduating from Indiana University, Whitaker moved to New York City where she resided in Upper Manhattan and formed a strong presence in the city’s music scene. She was a member of the Westchester Philharmonic, but returned to the institution each summer to play violin with 73 other musicians.
The Westchester orchestra, of which Whitaker was a member for at least 27 years, paid tribute to her on its website.
“A true and caring friend and exquisite artist, Mary was loved and admired for her gentless yet strength, her wisdom, enthusiasm, and generous soul,” the tribute said. “We miss her terribly. May she rest in peace.”
On Wednesday, Whitaker had apparently scheduled an appointment to have her car serviced, but failed to return phone calls from two friends who were supposed to give her a ride. Concerned, they went to 8448 Titus Road, Whitaker’s address in the town of Westfield, where her body was found.
Whitaker’s friends and colleagues haven taken to her Facebook page since Wednesday, leaving messages of memories and love.
“I just feel incredibly grief stricken that Mary’s life ended so violently and prematurely,” said Jill Mayer Burstein, a childhood friend and classmate at Indiana University. “A kinder, gentler friend cannot be found.”
Quinsin Nachoff, a Canadian composer from New York City, said he had the pleasure of meeting Whitaker for the first time in January.
“I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn of this tragedy. In addition to being a great player, she had such a warm, positive and encouraging character. My condolences to her family and friends,” he said.
Violinist Leslie Tomkins said she had the privilege of knowing Whitaker in New York.
“She brightened my world with her humor, kindness and beautiful spirit among her many gifts. I will miss her tremendously, and am wishing her loved ones and family peace and strength,” Tomkins said.
Marin Alsop, the internationally renowned music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, mourned the tragedy on Twitter.
“Today is filled with unbearable sadness at the news of the tragic loss of our dear, kind, gentle, funny, loyal friend, Mary Whitaker.
Friday, during a news conference announcing the charges against 30-year-old Charles Sanford and 43-year-old Jonathan Conklin connected to the fatal shooting, William Hochul, U.S. attorney for the western district of New York, put the tragedy in perspective.
“Mary Whitaker … here’s a woman who has devoted her life to beauty … came here to this county to bring her passion and talents and put it to use so others can similarly enjoy the beauty of music and all of the benefits we all get from having this wonderful orchestra at Chautauqua Institution.”
According to the Buffalo News, Sanford and Conklin were arraigned Friday in Buffalo in front of Judge H. Kenneth Schoreder Jr., federal magistrate. Not guilty pleas were entered for Sanford and Conklin, and they were ordered to be held without bail pending a Thursday hearing. They also, under oath, told the judge they are homeless, have been receiving food stamps and have two children each, for whom they pay child support.
In Chautauqua County, Sanford and Conklin will face state charges that have yet to be determined. David Foley, district attorney, said Friday he will present evidence to a grand jury before determining those charges.
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