Deborah Lander, the world-renowned violist who brought an Australian accent to the University of Kentucky’s string program and became an advocate for CPR training after her own cardiac arrest, died Friday in England. She was 49.
Her sister, Sara Allsopp Lander, wrote in a Facebook message that Lander’s death was “sudden and completely unexpected. She had had some minor health problems but nothing that seemed serious.” She wrote that the family hopes that an autopsy will provide a clearer picture of what happened.
Lander grew up in Sydney, Australia, and studied violin until she was 11. Then she switched to the viola, attracted by its sound.
“Anyone who plays the viola will tell you that the reason they take it up is because they’ve fallen in love with the sound,” Lander said in a 2009 Herald-Leader interview. “It’s such a fantastic, dark sound, like chocolate – dark chocolate. It’s the best instrument, no question.”
She set her sites in joining the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and did it, residing in London, where she performed constantly for six years. She then returned to Australia, where she taught at the University of Newcastle and helped develop the nation’s viola curriculum.
Then the University of Kentucky called, seeking to strengthen the school’s string program. Lander was hired in 2008 as UK’s first tenured professor of viola, and she set out on a mission to raise the profile of the instrument, which often seems to play second fiddle to the violin.
“If you are a viola player, it is your responsibility to play the viola repertoire and promote the viola repertoire,” she said.
Daniel Mason, the Lexington Philharmonic’s concertmaster and Lander’s UK colleague said she certainly accomplished that goal through recordings and commissions.
“She left the viola repertoire much healthier than it was before,” Mason said Tuesday afternoon.
Her first year at UK, she and Mason performed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola with the Philharmonic.
“That was a high point for me, to work with such a committed, passionate violist,” Mason said. “Her commitment to the instrument was great for the students to see and an inspiration to me.”
But a life-threatening emergency in 2012 put her on a different profile-raising mission. Lander was on her way to a University of Kentucky Opera performance when she collapsed on the sidewalk from cardiac arrest. Passerby Addison Hosea stopped and administered CPR, with the assistance of two other unidentified passersby, until paramedics arrived. Doctors later said the quick administration of CPR saved Lander’s life.
“Until you are in the position of having died and having someone save your life, you don’t realize what an amazing thing it is,” said Lander, whose story was featured at the 25th annual Central Kentucky Heart and Stroke Ball in 2013.
“It’s very hard to find the words to express what it means to meet the person who saved your life. The only reason you can meet them is because you’re alive, because of them.”
Lander’s sister wrote, “She loved Lexington! She loved that people were friendly but had good manners, she found the weather funny in its ability to change from snowstorms to tornado warnings without notice. She loved her knitting friends and scouring the yarn shop (Magpie Yarn), and of course she was so so grateful for the wonderful combined effort that Lexington provided in saving her life when she went into cardiac arrest. … She really felt that the United States was a land where talent and hard work was appreciated and where there was a commitment to excellence in education.”
Lander retired from UK after the 2013-14 school year and moved to London.
“She had a plan for about 18 months to move back to England, where she could play viola professionally again and be close to her musician friends and also her other sister and nephews,” her sister wrote. “The plan was to live on a narrowboat, play music, go to see Arsenal football team with her nephews and knit! Unfortunately she died before she could get all these elements in place. But she was living at a marina and spending lots of time with her nephews and we hear in the days before she died she had set up a social knitting club with new friends.”
Arrangements are pending, at this time. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Kitty Lodge, Inc., P.O. Box 1583, Mt. Sterling, KY 40353. Donations can be dropped at the Chevy Chase Animal Clinic, 600 Euclid Avenue.
Updated at 2:24 p.m. ET, Jan. 6.