Hugh Merryman Brown, age 93, passed away peacefully at home on Sunday, April 18. He was born in Los Angeles, California, to Hugh Cowen Brown and (Mary) Marie (Magdalen) Merryman Brown.
Brought to Kansas City a year later, Hugh began violin studies there at age 5 with Wort S. Morse. By age 9, he was a WDAF radio artist playing the likes of the Mendelssohn violin concerto and Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen.” Around this time, Hugh and his mother moved to New York, settling in New York City when Hugh was 10 years old, where she was able to continue her work for the photographic studio Bruno of Hollywood.
Hugh attended high school at the De La Salle Institute. There he officially began using his original middle name, “Hugh,” as he found unappealing the idea of enduring four years of Catholic boys’ school with the name “Merryman.” A scholarship winner, he excelled academically, being awarded the general excellence medal for his class in multiple years. Described as “a rather rabid but expert addict of ping-pong,” Hugh also enjoyed playing tennis and was an ardent fan of the old New York Giants baseball team. As a member of the accelerated group in his class, he graduated in February of 1944, intending to pursue studies in chemical engineering.
Hugh continued with his musical studies as well. His path touted as “a brilliant sequel to the meteoric rise of Menuhin and Ricci,” he named among his teachers Sherman Pitluck at the National Institute of Music in New York and Joseph Gingold. He later attended the Juilliard School, where he studied violin with Frank Kneisel.
Other musical activities during these formative years included playing under conductor Dean Dixon and in the New York City Symphony under a youthful Leonard Bernstein. In both 1944 and 1946, Hugh was a finalist in the prestigious Naumburg Foundation competition.
But high expectations for musical greatness became an intolerable burden. Hugh dropped out of Juilliard and turned to other occupations, even working for a while in the decorative-fabrics trade. The Latin rhythms that were finding their way into popular music of the time provided the spark Hugh needed to return to music, which he did via the dance bands of Tex Beneke (formerly the Glenn Miller band), Ted Straeter, and, for a short stint, Raymond Scott.
In 1951, Hugh auditioned for a tour with then little-known Robert Shaw and his chorale. Despite reservations about Hugh’s dance band experience, Shaw hired him as concertmaster. After the tour, his stand partner, Dorothy McConnell, became his wife, when they married on April 14, 1951, at Riverside Church in New York City. They were three weeks shy of their 70th wedding anniversary when Dorothy passed away in March.
Later that year, the couple came to Kansas City to play in the Kansas City Philharmonic, where Hugh took the position of assistant concertmaster to his former teacher Mr. Kneisel, who had just been named concertmaster. Hugh would later move to principal second violin, a post he continued to hold when the orchestra reorganized as the Kansas City Symphony.
He also performed with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and was concertmaster of the Starlight Theater orchestra for two decades. He enjoyed commercial-music opportunities as well, ranging from gigs at local venues such as the Muehlbach Hotel and Plaza Royale to orchestras for shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar and for pop and rock stars like Barry Manilow, Deodato, and the Moody Blues. Hugh also contracted many music groups for events around the city.
In the mid-1960s, Hugh was named to the faculty of the Conservatory of Music at UMKC, teaching viola, violin, and string techniques. ( A family joke is that Mom had the college degree but Dad ended up the professor. ) He was already the violist along with other faculty members in the Klausner Quartet, which became known as the Volker Quartet. He retired from the Conservatory in 1989, and from the Symphony in 1999.
An avid ham radio operator in his earlier years, Hugh shifted his attention to computers as they became popular. After his retirement, he continued to play music with the Medical Arts Symphony, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and for Handel’s “Messiah” at the RLDS temple in Independence. For years, a favorite activity was the Tuesday morning get-togethers with a group of friends dubbed “the Coffee Boys” by the wife of one of the members.
Hugh was an ardent lover of the music of Brahms; not so much of Schubert: “too long, repetitive enough without having to take the repeats on top of it…”. Ironically, it was the longest of Schubert’s symphonies, the “Great” C major with its brief, rhythmic accompaniment figure played ad nauseum by the upper strings throughout the entire fourth movement, that was playing during the last hour of Hugh’s life. Whether hearing that was the last straw, or whether he liked the work more than he would let on and wanted to hear it to the very end is a mystery that will remain unsolved.
Hugh was preceded in death by his parents and his wife, Dorothy. He is survived by his children, Carole and Chuck (Eve); two granddaughters, Tara (Max) Hapner and Lauren Brown; and two great-grandchildren, Isaac Oblinger and Evelyn Hapner.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be sent to Wayside Waifs or St. Jude Children’s Hospital. The family wishes to extend its gratitude to Brookdale Hospice for the invaluable aid of its wonderful caregivers, and to the numerous neighbors who have been so helpful in this time of loss.
A celebration of life will be held at a later date.