A well-known Portland musician who performed in more than 30 countries and taught thousands of students has died after battling pancreatic cancer for the past two years.

Stephen Kecskemethy, 68, a founding member of the Portland String Quartet, died at his home Saturday, his 17th wedding anniversary.

His wife, Shirley Helfrich, said her husband died around the time of day they were married. “He had magical powers that even I didn’t know about,” she said.

His friends, family and colleagues remembered him Monday as a talented violinist who inspired many of his students to pursue careers in music.

“His most important legacy was his ability to inspire students of all ages,” his wife said.

A former student named Patrick Doane came to Maine from his home in New York City last week. He played the violin for Kecskemethy and told his mentor that he had inspired him to form his own quartet.

Kecskemethy was born in 1944 in East Chicago, Ind. He and his older brother grew up in an orphanage run by their parents for Hungarian immigrants in Ligonier, Pa.

He graduated cum laude from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

Earlier this year, Kecskemethy and the three other founding members of the Portland String Quartet – as well as Kecskemethy’s replacement — were honored by Chamber Music America.

The classical music organization gave the quartet its 2013 CMAcclaim Award for having made a significant impact on the community. The award recognized the quartet’s longevity and contributions to the cultural well-being of Portland and all of Maine.

The group has been together since it was founded in 1969 by Portland Symphony Orchestra conductor Paul Vermel.

Vermel, who now lives in Illinois, chose four of the orchestra’s principal musicians – kids barely out of college – to travel around the state as a way to give the orchestra more exposure.

Paul Ross, Julia Adams, Ronald Lantz and Kecskemethy played in Maine and more than 30 countries until it became apparent that Kecskemethy could no longer perform because of his illness. Kecskemethy was replaced this year by Dean Stein.

“We bonded and we formed a mutual respect for each other. We learned to respect each other’s foibles and strengths,” said Lantz, the quartet’s second violinist. “That respect is what kept us together for so long.”

Lantz said that in the early 1980s the Harvard Business School made an instructional film about the quartet that is still used worldwide as a model of teamwork.

Since 1976, the Portland String Quartet has conducted summer workshops where students from all over the world have come to learn. The so-called master class has been held at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish since 2006.

Lantz said he will miss his colleague.

“I could get into my head that he was sick, but now that he’s not around to talk to … it’s tough,” Lantz said.

“Steve was a wonderful teacher. He was just terrific with some of the younger students,” said Adams, who plays viola in the quartet.

Adams said she met Kecskemethy in 1966, when they were both members of Music in Maine, a program that introduced chamber music into public schools.

Adams visited him Friday, the day before he died. His eyes were closed and he was struggling.

She decided to play a CD that had been recorded by the Portland String Quartet.

“Steve started listening and he opened his eyes. He mouthed the words, is that us? And I said yes. He said, ‘Wow.’“

“We’ve been through a lot over the years but we will never forget our music,” Adams said. “Steve didn’t forget.”

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: [email protected]


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