The Scotsman who brought music to Oregon

The Scotsman who brought music to Oregon


norman lebrecht

May 13, 2017

Sandra Hyslop has sent us a beautiful account of the life of the violinist and concertmaster Hugh Ewart, who died this week, aged 93:



Bellshill, Scotland, March 19, 1924 – Portland, Oregon, April 22, 2017

Hugh Winchester Ewart was born near Glasgow, in the small town of Bellshill, Scotland, on March 19, 1924. His parents, James Ewart, a violinist, and Margaret Mann Ewart, a pianist, separated when he was a small child. On April 28, 1928, Margaret Ewart, along with her mother, Elspet Mann, and four-year-old Hugh left Glasgow on the Cunard liner Cameronia to take up permanent residency in the United States. Upon their arrival at Ellis Island nine days later, they were momentarily detained until their stated destination and host could be verified. Grandmother Elspet’s brother, the Rev. Hugh Sinclair Winchester, in Joliet, Illinois, provided the necessary certification, and with the thump of a rubber stamp, “ADMITTED,” Hugh Ewart’s extraordinary life in America began.

The two women and the boy ultimately moved into an inexpensive cold-water flat at 168 N. LaSalle Avenue in Chicago. There, Margaret taught piano lessons, and Hugh learned the art of gathering spilled coal from nearby railroad tracks to provide heat for their apartment. Despite their meager income, Margaret saw to it that Hugh had violin lessons, and she was his pianist as he began to perform in public as a young teenager. Graduating from the Harrison Technical High School, where he had been both treasurer and secretary of the school orchestra, he entered the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, on full scholarship. From there he was accepted to The Juilliard School, where he acquired the polish that characterized his violin-playing ever after. His principal teachers were three great violinists of the mid-twentieth century: Joseph Fuchs, Ivan Galamian, and Nathan Milstein.

Hugh Ewart’s orchestral career began at the top. Upon graduation from Juilliard, the 22-year-old auditioned successfully for the Minneapolis Symphony and its music director, Dimitri Mitropoulos. His experience under this great and generous conductor, playing with one of the era’s most significant orchestras, provided a model for his career as a concertmaster.

As fate would have it, Hugh’s father, James Ewart, had also left Scotland and had settled in Portland, Oregon, where he was a violin teacher and a member of the Portland Symphony. Establishing a connection with his son, James encouraged him to audition for the concertmaster position that had become vacant in his Oregon orchestra. Hugh—never one to shy away from adventure—took the challenge. In 1948 Hugh Ewart won the position that he would hold for thirty years, concertmaster of the Portland Symphony Orchestra (renamed in1968 the Oregon Symphony). He retired with the well-earned title “Concertmaster Emeritus.”

From the moment Hugh arrived in Portland, his career and his life went into high gear. As a performer, entertainer, teacher, conductor, and entrepreneur, he was a complete musician. Always in motion, with his violin—and, sometimes his viola—at the ready, he sought out musical experiences of an extraordinary variety. Sober and challenging chamber music, his own arrangements of Scottish reels and strathpeys, great works of symphonic repertoire, show tunes and humorous medleys—all commanded Hugh’s delighted and meticulous attention. Audiences loved him.

So did his family. Not long after arriving in Portland, Hugh met a pretty young school teacher, Esther Fichtner, and on June 14, 1952, they married. From that day on, Esther Ewart—Essie—became not only the love of his life, but the glue that kept his professional life on schedule and in balance with their growing family activities.

How Hugh loved his life as a musician: a public school teacher for three decades, an adjunct professor of violin at Pacific University, Reed College, Multnomah College, and others, and the orchestra conductor at Young Musicians and Artists for 40 years, he also maintained a private studio that over the course of 65 years trained scores of violinists and other string players. Exacting and particular in his teaching and conducting, Hugh was also a kind and respectful mentor to young people.

In addition to his demanding role as the concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony, Hugh served several decades as the concertmaster for Portland’s annual Singing Christmas Tree; in the years before the Oregon Symphony offered full-time employment, he served as concertmaster of the Portland Opera orchestra; he sat—and stood—as the violin leader for annual Viennese balls; and he made many international tours as the violin soloist in pops concerts. For 40 years he was the featured violinist for annual celebrations of “Robert Burns Night” in Portland. Hugh was Norman Leyden’s favorite violin soloist during Leyden’s three-decades reign as the Oregon Symphony’s principal pops conductor. As the contractor for many ensembles large and small, Hugh and his violin were essential to weddings and other ceremonial occasions throughout the Northwest. When his children, David and Duncan (violins), and Barbara (cello), became adept with their instruments, Hugh would switch to the viola, and the Ewart family string quartet would perform together, often playing Hugh’s own arrangements.

Hugh was an indefatigable traveler, taking his violin with him even on private vacations. He would take it out wherever he was, from Provence to Peking, ready to entertain in a village hall or a small-town church, where he would inevitably make friends through his music. When he was not on a music stage, Hugh could be found on a tennis court, or in his violin studio, putting together a massive wooden ship model, or on the roof of his house attending to its maintenance, or on his meticulous lawn, tidying up the edges.

Above all, Hugh was devoted to his family and his church. Hugh is survived by his wife, Esther; his son David, his son Duncan, and his daughter, Barbara; and by eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Already as a music conservatory student Hugh had joined the Juilliard Christian Fellowship and had performed frequently under its auspices in the New York City area. Hugh and Essie were active members of the Tabor Heights Methodist Church, where a public Celebration of Hugh Ewart’s Life will take place on Sunday, May 21, at 5:00 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, gifts to the Oregon Symphony, or to Young Musicians and Artists, in memory of Hugh Ewart, will be gratefully accepted. The family would also welcome fond memories and recollections of Hugh; please send them to

—Sandra Hyslop



  • NYMike says:

    I knew Hugh’s son David. Here’s a 2012 article about him and his family:

  • violadavid says:

    Thank you for this…very interesting. As an orchestral musician form Bellshill also, it’s good to hear of other musicians who came from the town….