Obituary: Martin Lerner / Connected with others through music and his warm personality

Feb. 3, 1926 - Feb. 24, 2014

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Playing music in a professional orchestra requires the utmost ability to listen and work with different people. Then again, connecting with others -- as a friend, musician or family member -- was natural for Martin Lerner.

"When people are able to align their values and lives with their work ... that's when both sides work to the benefit of the other," said his son, Daniel Lerner. "My father absolutely managed to do that."

Mr. Lerner, a friend, family man and flutist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1955 to 1996, died Monday after a long illness. He was 88.

Born and raised in Chicago, Mr. Lerner chose playing music over becoming a doctor and received a scholarship to study with the renowned flutist Julius Baker, his son said. Mr. Lerner started taking gigs and touring across the country.

During one trip to Pittsburgh, he auditioned for the PSO, then led by William Steinberg, and won the seat. He moved here in 1955 and never left, retiring from the orchestra in 1996.

On another trip, this time with the PSO to New York's Carnegie Hall in 1967, he happened upon another great love. He married his wife, Mimi, in 1969. After moving here, Mimi Lerner would become Pittsburgh's beloved mezzo-soprano, singing at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, along with Rodef Shalom Congregation. She died in 2007.

At the Squirrel Hill house where they spent most of their lives together, the musicians created a warm home, a musical home -- those were one and the same. Daniel Lerner recalled listening to PSO broadcasts with his dad or sneaking downstairs, "watching the two of them play together." Others would stop by -- fellow PSO members, friends who were amateur musicians -- to play, share meals or stay for a week.

"Our home was really a hub of activity," said Daniel Lerner, who now lives in New York.

A longtime pianist friend, Irene Schreier, knew Mr. Lerner from Chicago, where they would play chamber music together.

"This was a guy who just exuded energy, and he was also the best joke-teller I've ever met," Ms. Schreier said.

While she and her husband were living in England, her husband received an offer to join the Carnegie Mellon University faculty, and they decided to move to Pittsburgh. Knowing Mr. Lerner would be around made all the difference, and he and Mimi helped the newcomers get settled.

"The idea that I would have some connection to my earlier life, and such an important one ... was enormously encouraging in thinking about such a major move," Ms. Schreier said. "There was such warmth emanating from Marty and Mimi that we immediately felt at home."

That accommodating character extended to Mr. Lerner's tenure with the PSO, where he played second flute. He wasn't interested in a principal flute job, because he enjoyed collaborating with others and being part of the ensemble, his son said.

Indeed, playing second flute requires the flexibility to follow along with the principal flutist and conductor or perform a solo, noted Rhian Kenny, his colleague and PSO principal piccolo.

"It really does take a special person to play second, and he was that," said Ms. Kenny, who sat next to Mr. Lerner.

Joining the PSO fresh out of school, Ms. Kenny also appreciated drawing on the veteran musician's experience.

"Marty was one of my first teachers in a professional setting, really, so I learned a lot from him. He was extremely good-natured and obviously very seasoned, and he was a great colleague," she said.

In addition to playing with the PSO and playing host at home, Mr. Lerner taught flute -- one student described him as "my flute father," his son said -- sang with the Beth Shalom choir and enjoyed bridge. Most of all, though, he prioritized being a generous friend, husband and father.

"He was a great listener, and a compassionate, kind human being," Daniel Lerner said.

He also is survived by a grandson.

Visitation will be from 12 to 1 p.m. today at Rodef Shalom Congregation, 4905 Fifth Ave., Oakland, where a funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Arrangements are being made by Ralph Schugar Chapel.


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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