Former DSO violinist finds music runs in the blood

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

It’s a tale of family lost and found, with a plot that reads almost like a Dickens novel.

Because at the end of this happy-ending adoption story, not only is everyone related — they’re almost all musicians, too, raising intriguing questions in the old nature-or-nurture debate.

Former Detroit Symphony Orchestra violinist Ann Strubler’s remarkable saga to find her birth family will be the focus of a special National Adoption Month celebration at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall on Sunday to benefit the adoption agency Spaulding for Children.

“Tapestry: A Musician’s Journey” will start at 3 p.m. and include a short documentary by Strubler’s son Michael, as well as a “symphonic poem” written for the occasion by another son, Matthew. (All three of Strubler’s grown sons studied music and compose.)

Strubler, 64, was not the sort of adoptive child who longed for her “real” family: “I was raised by exactly who I was meant to be raised by,” she said.

Adopted as a newborn by a small-town doctor and his wife, the young Strubler grew up on 47 acres in rural Minnesota with horses and 40 head of black Angus cattle. “It was,” she said, “a childhood dream.”

When the 3-year-old Strubler started pecking out the opening line to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “The Pastorale,” her adoptive parents got her right into piano lessons.

“It’s the one from ‘Fantasia.’ And it was just one finger,” Strubler said with a laugh. “Don’t be impressed.”

Decades later, when pregnant with her first child in 1986, Strubler — who’d joined the DSO six years before — got in touch with the agency that handled her adoption to see about reaching out to her birth family.

With a child on the way, she suddenly worried, Strubler says, that her birth mother — whoever that was — might fear she hated her.

“Without trying to sound noble, I felt I had to get a message to her, no strings attached,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for a mother, an identity or medical records. I just wanted her to know she’d made the right decision — that I have a good life.”

One night that March, Suzanne Fisch in San Diego got a call from an adoption agency representative who said a former client, whom she declined to identify, was trying to find her birth mother.

The agency rep wouldn’t give many specifics, but did tell Fisch, “I just want you to know this young woman’s a very gifted musician east of the Mississippi.”

Fisch, who never married and worked for years as a social worker, says she hung up wondering if her apparent daughter might be a punk musician with pink hair.

“I later learned,” she added, “that Ann wondered if I was a bag lady.” She laughs. “So we both had our uncertainties.”

Those dissolved the minute the women exchanged long letters. The relationship that’s flowered since is deep, rich and rewarding for both.

“We’re each the missing piece in each other,” Fisch says. “I hit the jackpot with the best of the best of the best.”

In their first phone conversation, daughter Strubler recalls, “We spent three hours finishing each other’s sentences.”

But given Strubler’s considerable musical gifts — ones she’s passed on to her children — perhaps the biggest surprise was finding out that her maternal grandfather had been a successful professional musician.

Nature vs. nurture? You decide.

“What we learned,” says Strubler’s husband Dave, a professor at Oakland University, “was that her grandfather had been a drummer in John Phillip Sousa’s band and later a big-band leader with his own radio show.”

For 20 years, it was enough for Strubler to nurture a warm relationship with her birth mother — particularly after her adoptive mother, whom she loved, passed away.

But in 2007, it dawned on Strubler that her birth father had to be in his 80s, and that if she was ever going to reach out to him, she’d best make haste.

The Strublers were able to finally meet him when they dropped their son Mark off for his freshman year at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.

Joseph DiCarlo turned out — Is anyone surprised? — to be a jazz musician who, unbeknownst to either of them, had lived less than a mile from Strubler when she was an undergraduate years before at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music.

A high point in this budding relationship, which both Strublers describe as warm and affectionate, came when DiCarlo flew to Detroit and, sitting in the front row at Orchestra Hall, got to hear his daughter play with the DSO.

Unexpected musical connections on both sides of Strubler’s birth family — could this story get any richer?

Well, yes. Quite recently Strubler was contacted by a half-sister who was also adopted out, Alison Guerra.

You’ll recall that Strubler’s sons are all composers. So here’s the punchline — so are Guerra’s two children, Olivia and John.

In fact, the two recently composed a new “Mass of Mercy” for the Catholic Church.

And fittingly, Guerra is coming to Detroit to meet her sister in person this weekend and will attend the Sunday performance at Orchestra Hall.

“I guess you could say the story had the best-possible outcome that life could afford,” said Strubler’s son Michael, the documentary filmmaker. “It’s been a beautiful reuniting.”

Folks at Spaulding for Children feel the same way.

“It’s all just such a touching and heartwarming story,” said Addie Williams, agency president and CEO, “and Dave and Ann have worked tirelessly to get this event going.”

(313) 222-6021

‘Tapestry: A Musician’s Journey’

3 p.m., Sunday

Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets: $25 — adult, $10 — student

(313) 576-5111