BY JANET MANDELSTAM
Jerry Horner heard a viola when he was 14 and fell in love with the sound. Until then, he had studied the violin for several years, but it would be as a violist that Horner would make his mark as a performer, teacher, and mentor to young musicians, and as a coach of string quartets around the world.
Now 81, Horner has retired as professor of music from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and retired after 20 years as the violist with the Fine Arts Quartet. His career has been bookended by two stints in Bloomington.
An Indiana University graduate, Horner was a violist with the Pittsburgh Symphony in the mid-1970s, with no plans to return to his alma mater. “But I got a call from my old teacher, David Dawson, who said he was going on sabbatical and asked if I could fill in for him for a semester,” Horner recalls. He expected to stay at IU for only one semester, but Dawson died suddenly, and Horner stayed on for three years.
He left to join the Vermeer Quartet, the first of several ensembles with which he performed before joining the Fine Arts Quartet.
Mentoring has paralleled performing in Horner’s life. While teaching in Milwaukee, he founded a string program for inner-city children, raising money from the community for instruments and lessons. “The kids would sleep with their violins,” he recalls.
When Horner retired in 2000, after a career that included appearances as a soloist with leading orchestras, he returned to Bloomington. “The classical music scene in Bloomington is wonderful.” Horner says the Pacifica Quartet, in residence at the IU Jacobs School of Music, has revitalized chamber music, joking that they’ve “made it almost popular.” But he’s less ebullient about the classical scene generally.
“The level of playing is higher than it’s ever been, but the study of the arts in schools in the U.S. has been cut for many years, so you have a political leadership that’s less informed and doesn’t provide much official support,” he says.
Horner now travels the world, often to Europe, coaching young chamber musicians. Among the groups he currently mentors are string quartets in the Czech Republic, Romania, and Great Britain. He works under the auspices of the Center for Knowledge Diffusion, a Bloomington-based nonprofit organization that promotes mentoring and talent development and is directed by his wife, Margaret Clements.