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Symphony icon Norma Brown dies at 89

Norma Brown, the talented pianist and gracious wife of Santa Rosa Symphony Conductor Emeritus Corrick Brown, died Thursday at her Santa Rosa home after a long battle with congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Despite having been dependent on oxygen for several years, the 89-year-old mother of three boys and grandmother of five still had enjoyed going out to lunch with friends and practicing scales every day on her beloved Bösendorfer grand piano.

“Last night, she was at the dinner table, and a friend made her matzoh ball soup, and we sat and drank pinot noir, and Norma laughed,” Corrick Brown said Thursday afternoon. “She was able to play piano and even played with (her son) Derek two weeks ago. And she gardened.”

Together, the Browns were a force to be reckoned with in the Santa Rosa music scene for six decades. Corrick Brown was called back to his hometown of Santa Rosa in 1958 while both he and Norma were studying music in Vienna so he could become the Santa Rosa Symphony’s second music director in its 93-year history.

While her husband focused on leading from the podium, Norma volunteered relentlessly behind the scenes to raise funds, host guest artists at her home and help grow and elevate the orchestra.

“I can remember Norma always being there at rehearsals,” said Pauline Fisher of Santa Rosa, who served as the orchestra’s manager from 1978 to 1996. “She would bring the tape recorder and make sure the tape recorder was set up.”

“While he conducted, she knew everybody in the orchestra and not just to say hello,” said Shirley Chilcott of Santa Rosa, a former cellist with the symphony. “I can’t imagine anyone else being married to Corrick. She was the perfect wife for him, because she did everything. All he had to do was the music.”

Last year, when the Browns were honored by the Santa Rosa Symphony during a virtual awards gala, Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron toasted her longtime friends. “CorrickandNorma. It’s almost like one word, no spaces,” she said. “Corrick has been the one out in front, in front of the orchestra and the audience. And Norma, she’s done everything else.”

After Corrick Brown retired from the symphony in 1995, he co-chaired the capital fundraising campaign for the construction of the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, and the couple helped raise money by performing four-handed piano recitals together. The Santa Rosa Symphony is the resident orchestra of the performance hall, which opened in 2012 after many delays.

“Words can barely express what a special gift Norma was in so many ways, not only for her family but the greater Santa Rosa Symphony family,” said Alan Silow, president and CEO of the symphony. “Without her, the Santa Rosa Symphony would not be what it is today.”

Born August 27, 1931, to veterinarian Fred Reddert and his wife Lottie in Durango, Colorado, she grew up in Santa Cruz, where her parents ran a veterinary business together and eventually bought and retired to the family ranch land in Mancos in southwest Colorado.

“Everyone thought of her as such an elegant first lady of the orchestra, but she was so grounded,” said her youngest son, Keven Brown, who took over the reins of Corrick’s gift and stationary store in downtown Santa Rosa from his dad. “She was more comfortable in blue jeans and riding a horse.”

After taking piano lessons as a girl and accompanying the church choir, she entered Stanford University at 16 and studied piano with Adolph Baller, a well-known Viennese pianist. She made an impression on the Stanford sophomore Corrick Brown when she was a freshman.

“She was wearing a red dress, and she looked very different than all the other girls,” Corrick recalled. “Also, she was quite cute.”

After sharing music together at Stanford, the young couple went their separate ways: Corrick served in the Army for two years, while Norma taught at a girls’ prep school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Although she was accepted into Harvard University to study musicology, she stopped in New York on her way to Boston and had a lesson with Hans Neumann of the Mannes College of Music and decided to switch gears.

“She walked to Columbia and said she wanted to go to graduate school there, and they let her in on the spot,” said her son Derek Brown, who works with an international nonprofit that promotes peace and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. “She has her masters in musicology from Columbia.”

She married her college sweetheart July 5, 1956, in Los Gatos. Then her husband convinced her to go to Vienna, where he studied conducting and they both studied piano. And she followed him back to Santa Rosa when he was asked to lead his hometown orchestra.

“She comes back to Santa Rosa and ends up being the woman behind Corrick, getting the symphony going, raising the boys, hosting every young musician and sometimes getting them tuxedos, and feed them and housing them,” Fisher said. “I don’t know how she did it.”

In 1958, she helped found the Santa Rosa Symphony League, an auxiliary organization to help support the orchestra programs, then started teaching piano and musicology at Santa Rosa Junior College. She also performed as a soloist and a pianist with the symphony.

“The thing that she was most proud of was that she started the SRJC chamber music concert series in 1971-’72,” Derek said. “It started in the city council chambers until Newman Hall opened, so that’s going on 50 years now.”

“She was a real maternal and musical figure for a lot of young musicians in this town,” Derek said. “My brothers and I were all musicians, and we had a built-in, world-class piano accompanist and coach.”

As a gardener and a cook, however, she was legendary, her culinary prowess well known by many visiting musicians who stayed at her home.

When the St. Lawrence Quartet came up to play at the junior college, the cellist told them, “Mrs. Brown is running the chamber concert series, and she makes the greatest lasagna,” Corrick said.

In addition to her husband Corrick and sons Derek and Keven, she is survived by her sister, Naomi Reddert of Carmel; son Ryan Brown of Washington, D.C.; and five grandchildren.

The family plans to hold a private ceremony in Colorado and a concert in her honor in Sonoma County at a later date.

The family suggests contributions to the Santa Rosa Symphony or a charity of your choice.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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