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Masuko Ushioda, acclaimed violinist, NEC teacher

Joanna Kurkowicz, concertmaster of the Boston Philharmonic, said Ms. Ushioda “was one of those amazing teachers who guides you in how to find your own personality.Andrew Hurlbut

In recent decades, violinist Masuko Ushioda was best known locally as a teacher and a chamber musician, but she enjoyed an active international career as a soloist in the 1960s after winning prizes at two high-profile competitions.

At the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1966, where she won a silver medal, one listener who took particular notice was a young American cellist and fellow competitor named Laurence Lesser.

“She was astonishingly charismatic,” Lesser recalled. “Her playing was incandescent. It just lit up the room. Music and she were the same thing.”

The two married in 1971 and moved to Boston three years later for faculty positions at New England Conservatory, where Lesser later served as president from 1983 to 1996.


Ms. Ushioda died of leukemia May 28 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She was 71 and lived in Cambridge.

“The quality I’ll always remember about her playing was its incredible honesty,” said violinist and fellow NEC faculty member Donald Weilerstein. “She played with enormous amounts of depth and integrity.”

As a performer, Ms. Ushioda was praised for her technical ability and style.Andrew Hurlbut

Weilerstein met Ms. Ushioda in 1963 while both were competing in the finals of the Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels. He praised her poise, recalling that while other violinists nervously hunkered down in their practice rooms, Ms. Ushioda found time for meditative strolls in local public gardens.

“The qualities of the person and of the performer are not always the same,” he said, “but in her case, they were: she had an incredible sincerity and warmth.”

Born in China in 1942 in Shenyang, Manchuria, Ms. Ushioda grew up in a musically supportive family.

“My mother was a professional choreographer. She felt that a woman should have something to do with her hands,” she told the Tab newspaper in 1985. “It was natural for me to study the violin.”


She graduated from the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo and was deeply influenced by the famed Japanese conductor and cellist Hideo Saito, who attracted a circle of talented young Japanese musicians deeply engaged with Western classical music. Also in that circle was a rail-thin, young pianist and aspiring conductor with whom Ms. Ushioda maintained a lifelong musical friendship.

“There’s no greater anguish than losing a comrade younger than oneself,” Seiji Ozawa said of Ms. Ushioda in a statement from Japan. “I still can’t believe she’s gone. We were together at school at Toho, and she went on to shine as a soloist, chamber player, and concertmaster.”

Ozawa and Ms. Ushioda played central roles in the orchestra later founded to honor Saito’s memory, known as the Saito Kinen Orchestra. Ms. Ushioda performed often as its concertmaster, and took up the same role at the smaller Mito Chamber Orchestra, also in Japan.

After her early years of study in Japan with a Russian-trained teacher, Ms. Ushioda completed her studies in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and in Switzerland, where she studied with the iconic 20th-century violin soloist Josef Szigeti.

Her Tchaikovsky silver medal and Lesser’s fourth-place finish earned them spots together on Soviet government-sponsored tours of smaller Russian cities. By the early 1970s, she was performing some 90 solo performances per year.

When Lesser and Ms. Ushioda later joined the NEC faculty in 1974 — invited by Gunther Schuller, then its president — she had not taught other students before, but she learned quickly.


“She was one of those amazing teachers who guides you in how to find your own personality,” said violinist Joanna Kurkowicz, who studied with Ms. Ushioda for three years and currently serves as concertmaster of the Boston Philharmonic. “She didn’t give you answers on a plate. She would show you the beginning of the task, so you could continue the search for yourself. She had a curious mind, and she instilled that kind of curiosity in all of her students.”

Lesser said that she “was used to having teachers for whom learning about life was equally important to learning about the violin. She was constantly taking her own students to museums, or going out and having fine meals, or scolding them for not dressing appropriately, or encouraging them in whatever way possible to be complete people.”

As a recitalist, Ms. Ushioda drew praise from The New York Times for her “warm and very effective sense of style.”

In the Globe, critic Richard Buell, describing a 1985 performance, wrote that Ms. Ushioda “demonstrated a technique that was manifestly and dazzlingly in the first class, as well as a musical intelligence that combines naturalness and penetrative insight.”

In more recent years, Ms. Ushioda performed regularly with her two Japanese ensembles, and frequently on NEC’s First Monday series in Jordan Hall, curated by Lesserf. Her final public concert was in that series on Nov. 5, when she led an ensemble of colleagues in Brahms’s String Sextet in B-flat. She learned of her acute illness the following morning.


In addition to Lesser, Ms. Ushioda leaves two children, Erika Lesser and Adam Manjiro Lesser, both of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a sister, Fusa Shimizu of Tokyo; and two grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are private. A public memorial tribute will be announced in the fall at New England Conservatory.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at