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Michael David Thornton

Michael David Thornton had a jovial sense of humor, a passion for the tuba and loved sharing the joy of music with others.

Mr. Thornton, principal tubist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1974 until his retirement in 2009, died Sept. 19 at his home in Winchester, Va. He was 59.

The cause was a heart attack, said his son Jeremy Thornton of Fairmont, WV.

"He had an infectious personality, and he loved his boys more than anything," said his former wife, Susan Bestul of Cleveland. "He was a very special person. Tuba heaven will never be the same."

Mr. Thornton was born in Christiansburg, Va. He earned a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 1974 and a master's degree in music from Yale University in 1976, the same year that he joined the Cincinnati Symphony.

"Mike was a terrific player, friend a colleague at the CSO and Pops," said John Morris Russell, Cincinnati Pops conductor. "He was always so supportive and passionate about our education and outreach work. We probably performed 'Tubby the Tuba' together a half-dozen times, and the custom set of 'hose-a-phones' he made for me and our brass concerts have been a keystone in my presentations over the years."

Mr. Thornton became a local celebrity during the legendary blizzard of 1978, when 7 inches of snow fell in Cincinnati, the Ohio River froze over and many roads were impassible. The musician, who lived in Blue Ash, was scheduled to appear on the "Bob Braun Show," which was broadcast live on Channel 5 from Crosley Square, 9th and Elm streets, Downtown.

"He put chains on his car, and he was the only guest who showed up. It was just him for an hour and a half," Bestul recalled. "For the next 20 years, every place we went, even eating in restaurants, people would say, 'Aren't you that tuba player we saw on Bob Braun?'"

During his tenure with the orchestra, Mr. Thornton made several solo appearances with the CSO, recorded a solo album, and performed countless recitals around Greater Cincinnati.

He performed as soloist in the Vaughan Williams Concerto for Tuba with the Cincinnati Symphony on tours in 1982 and 1988. Mr. Thornton's solo tuba album, recorded in 1982, included the world premiere of "The New Seasons" by Cincinnati composer Frank Proto, a former CSO double bass player. Ten years later, Mr. Thornton premiered another tuba concerto by Proto with the Cincinnati Symphony under the direction of music director Jesus Lopez-Cobos.

He played in the CSO Jazz Quintet and was a member of the Queen City Brass Quintet, appearing twice on "A Prairie Home Companion." During his first appearance on Garrison Keillor's radio show, he dedicated a piece to his then-newborn son, Matthew.

Mr. Thornton was devoted to his two sons. He coached their little league baseball teams in Blue Ash and was a Cub Scout leader.

Mr. Thornton had many interests outside of music, from history and languages to Appalachian music, said James Lambert, CSO associate principal bass and a longtime friend.

"He had a really zany sense of humor,'' Lambert said. "He was a man of many talents and he had an endearing personality. We're carrying on at the symphony, but his death has left a big hole in my life."

Mr. Thornton performed tuba recitals across the United States and performed at festivals such as the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. He was a guest soloist with the U.S. Air Force Band and the American Wind Symphony. While at Yale, Mr. Thornton was the assistant conductor of the Yale Wind Ensemble and conducted works by Charles Ives in Finland and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

He served on the music faculty at Miami University from 1999 to 2008.

Mr. Thornton also taught tuba at the University of Kentucky, Xavier University, Northern Kentucky University and the College of William and Mary.

He was an ordained deacon at Knox Presbyterian Church in Hyde Park and served on the Board of Deacons from 1993 to 1995.

In addition to his sons, both of Fairmont, Va., and his former wife, survivors include a sister, Darshia Thornton Allwine of Alexandria, VA.

Services have been held.

Memorials: Edgehill Recovery Center, 315 E. Cork St. Winchester, VA 22601; or Blue Ridge Hospice, 333 W. Cork St. Winchester, VA 22601.

Written by Janelle Gelfand | jgelfand@enquirer.com

Published in The Cincinnati Enquirer from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, 2011
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