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Remembering Judy Dayton

Judy Dayton at a Minnesota Orchestra event with her nephew Governor Mark Dayton in 2014, standing in front of a historic photo of Judy’s late husband Ken Dayton.

In memoriam: Judy Dayton (1927-2021)

When Judy Dayton passed away on August 11 at age 94, the Minnesota Orchestra family joined mourners in our state and beyond in honoring the life of a generous, visionary and committed patron who supported numerous cultural institutions, served several of them in leadership roles—and perhaps above all, was a passionate lover of the arts and great friend to many in the community.

The Orchestra was a great, shared love in the lives of Judy and her late husband Ken; their first date, in fact, was a Minnesota Orchestra concert. Judy and Ken held the same seats at Orchestra Hall continuously since the Hall was built in 1974 and traveled with the Orchestra on its first-ever tour to Europe in 1998, describing the Orchestra’s debut at Vienna’s Musikverein as a great high point in their musical lives. Judy continued to celebrate and support the Orchestra on tour, after Ken’s death in 2003.

Unparalleled generosity

Judy and Ken Dayton’s generosity across the arts community was unparalleled; they served as benefactors of the Walker Art Center—where Judy was the first female president—Minnesota Opera and Guthrie Theater, among many other organizations. At the Minnesota Orchestra, Judy and Ken endowed two orchestral chairs, provided cornerstone funding for the creation of Orchestra Hall, made extraordinary gifts to support the Orchestra’s greatest artistic initiatives, established the Oakleaf Trust endowment and, with Louise and Douglas Leatherdale, donated the Michael Leiter Bass Violin Collection, an outstanding gift of great historic and musical significance, the four instruments of which are used by the Orchestra’s bass section.

Judy served on the Minnesota Orchestra’s Board of Directors from 1967 to 1969 during her tenure as president of YPSCA, the Young People’s Symphony Concert Association. She was a longtime member of FRIENDS of the Minnesota Orchestra (formerly known as WAMSO); served as honorary chair of the 2005 Symphony Ball along with Rosalynd Pflaum; and in 2013, during the Orchestra’s labor dispute, she and then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak stepped forward to host a celebration of the Orchestra’s Grammy nomination, inviting the community to come together around the nomination at a time of strife. 

A friend of the Orchestra

“There are not words to adequately describe all that Judy has meant to the Minnesota Orchestra,” said the Orchestra’s President and CEO Michelle Miller Burns. “Judy was a person of exceptional taste, lively humor and great integrity. She did not seek the spotlight for herself or her contributions, but her love for the arts and sense of social responsibility has indelibly influenced our city. And we recognize that the Minnesota Orchestra plays at the highest level, is known on the world stage, and performs in one of the country’s best orchestral venues because of the extraordinary contributions of Judy and Ken Dayton.”

Anthony Ross, an Orchestra musician since 1988 and principal cello for the past three decades, is among many in the Orchestra who formed a close bond with Judy Dayton over the years, stating: “She was the best friend any orchestra could ever have. Not only was she a passionate and steadfast audience member, she was a beacon for philanthropy in the arts, knowing that the arts promote thriving communities. As a musician and friend, I will miss her support, curiosity and her gracious, down to earth personality. She was a true Minnesota treasure.”

“Judy was gracious, humble and truly extraordinary,” added Music Director Osmo Vänskä, who shared a specific memory from 2013. “She adored the Minnesota Orchestra—and was always willing to listen and champion the artistry of musicians. I vividly remember when she wanted to help during the Orchestra’s lockout period. We spoke about how wonderful it would be if the Orchestra produced a concert celebration of its Grammy-nominated recording of Sibelius Symphonies No. 1 and 4. She discreetly organized a meeting for us with then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak where it was decided that Judy and R.T. would be the leaders to invite the community—including negotiators during the lockout—to come together around the Grammy nomination concert; and so it happened.

“At the concert, the plan was for Judy and R.T. to welcome the audience to the special event. Judy, who was forever modest and never seeking attention, asked if it was necessary for her to go onstage to welcome the audience. After some convincing, she agreed and I still remember the incredible audience enthusiasm and applause for Judy and R.T., welcoming the entire audience to a rather historic concert.”

A committed concertgoer

Paula DeCosse, a longtime patron of the Minnesota Orchestra, current Board member and friend of Judy, reflected on Judy’s commitment to the Orchestra through attending concerts: “When my husband Cy and I attended Minnesota Orchestra concerts with Judy, she always insisted that we sit in ‘her’ seats—the four in the front row of the third left box of Balcony A that Ken had chosen when Orchestra Hall was being built, after an extensive investigation of the acoustics in the new auditorium. Indomitable even in her later years, Judy refused to give up concert-going even when she had to use a walker; in her elegant way, she strode ahead of us toward her seats as purposefully as ever.

“Whether the program included new music or old favorites, Judy always listened with rapt attention. She often remarked about how lucky she felt to have had a professor at Connecticut College who made classical music so engaging she could still hum the opening passages of recordings he’d played and identify themes he’d pointed out. Osmo was a personal friend of hers, as the conductors before him had been, and she was especially delighted when Minnesota Orchestra musicians played solos, expressing pride in the talent and virtuosity displayed by members of our local ‘band.’ 

“I will miss Judy as I look across the hall from our seats in the opposite balcony, half-expecting to see her clapping enthusiastically as the music fades away and the musicians bow. I know she’ll be there in spirit, encouraging us all and buoying us up.”

Contributing to the sound

William Schrickel, the Orchestra’s assistant principal bass and a member of the ensemble since 1976, described Judy’s commitment to the Orchestra and her actual contribution to the ensemble’s sound:

“It was my privilege to know Judy Dayton for more than 40 years. She loved the Minnesota Orchestra, and it was always comforting to look out into the audience once a week at the conclusion of a performance and wave to her while she was applauding from her regular seat in the lower tier, third box, stage right. She often accompanied the Orchestra on our tours to Carnegie Hall and to Europe, and it was not at all uncommon to run into her in the tour hotel’s bar or restaurant after the concerts, mingling with the musicians and engaging in wide-ranging conversations about music, art, and the joys of travel. Judy was not a ‘dabbler’—she was deeply knowledgeable about a variety of topics, and she was an engaging talker as well as a rapt listener. She was bright-eyed and funny, and she was always kind, whether I was speaking to her at the Symphony Ball or bumping into her in the frozen food aisle of the Kowalski’s on Hennepin Avenue, where she did her own grocery shopping. She cared about the individuals in the Orchestra as much as she cared about the institution itself. 

“I never play a rehearsal or a concert on the stage of Orchestra Hall without thinking fondly and gratefully of Judy Dayton. With her husband Ken, along with Louise and Doug Leatherdale, Judy made a gift to the Orchestra of a collection of four rare old Italian double basses. One of the basses, a magnificent instrument made by Matteo Goffriller in Venice in 1740, is the bass I play in the Minnesota Orchestra. I cannot think of any other donation ever made to the Orchestra that has the lasting and audible impact that these four instruments bring to the sound the listener hears in concert every week. The sound of a symphony orchestra is built from the bottom up, and I am confident that there is not another bass section in the world that can surpass the visceral power and the elegant beauty of the Minnesota Orchestra’s instruments. When the basses thunder out the Trio of the third movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the upcoming season’s opening concert in September, everyone in the audience should breathe a silent thank you (along with me) to Judy for the stupendous quality of the sound.”

A shining legacy

“Orchestra Hall will never be the same without Judy’s presence,” said President and CEO Michelle Miller Burns. “But her legacy shines brightly across the entire Twin Cities arts community. The Orchestra shares its condolences with the Dayton family, and we will celebrate Judy’s extraordinary generosity and great legacy with the ensemble for many years to come.”