Paul Vermel discovered the joy of music in early childhood, long before he became the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s first full-time conductor.

As a young boy in Paris in the years before World War II, he played piano with his father every evening before dinner. When he was 13, his parents brought him to see Concertgebouw Orchestra, a Dutch symphony orchestra. The experience changed his life.

“The concert was so powerful for him that he made the decision right then and there that he wanted to conduct,” said Carolyn Paulin, Vermel’s wife of 48 years. “He remembered his entire life what the program was that night.”

Carolyn Paulin and her husband, Paul Vermel, retired to Maine, where he had been the founding director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Paulin

Vermel, a conductor, teacher and mentor known for his skill and passion, died Feb. 14, just five days before his 100th birthday.

Vermel was born in Paris in 1924, not long after his parents and older sister escaped to France following the Russian Revolution. After Germany invaded France during WWII, the family fled for a year. They later returned to Paris, where it was easier to hide from German soldiers.

By that time, Vermel had already studied conducting, organ, harmony and theory. He came to the United States in 1949 to study at The Juilliard School in New York City as a student of Jean Morel. Over the next decade, he became a U.S. citizen, served on the faculty at Juilliard and was the conductor of a symphony orchestra and orchestral society in New York. He was also the music director of the summer orchestra and musical theater program at Green Mansions in the Berkshires and made his Broadway debut as assistant conductor of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “The Saint of Bleeker Street.”


His career brought him next to California, where he was both a conductor and college professor. Vermel moved back to the East Coast in 1966 to lead Music in Maine, a Title III program that brought chamber music to elementary and middle schools across the state, including the most rural communities. A year later, he was tapped to lead the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

“He was humble. He was a little bit shy,” Paulin said. “But when he was teaching or with an orchestra, he was strong and vigorous.”

The PSO, founded the same year Vermel was born, had been a mostly volunteer, community orchestra before he became conductor. He is credited with helping it become more professional and encouraging the orchestra to think big.

“It was a good orchestra, but it needed more time playing together,” Vermel said in 2015. “It was the beginning of a good orchestra.”

Julia Adams, a violist who knew Vermel for nearly 60 years, said the symphony flourished under him.

“He had a sweep of gestures which just united the orchestra. We always felt there was motion to respond to,” she said. “The orchestra players are looking for the soul of the music and he certainly expressed that to us. And I think the orchestra thrived because of that.”


Adams first met Vermel when she joined Music in Maine in 1966. When Music in Maine ended in 1969, he invited Adams, Ronald Lantz and Stephen Kecskemethy to be principals at the Portland symphony and to form the Portland Symphony String Quartet. The quartet, which included cellist Paul Ross, traveled around the state to represent the orchestra.

Around 1980, the orchestra cut ties with the quartet, which became known as the Portland String Quartet. The quartet, now in its 55th season, went on to have residencies at the University of Southern Maine and Colby College. It performed in 31 countries.

Lantz, the founding 2nd violinist in the quartet, credits Vermel with launching him into his dream career as a chamber musician touring the world. They stayed in touch after Vermel left the PSO, but Lantz always felt he could turn to him for support and advice.

“He was an incredibly gracious and intelligent and fabulous musician,” he said. “Paul was the greatest combination of music intellect and humanity. He could be a conductor and still be a person.”

Vermel served as music director of the PSO until 1975, then moved to Illinois to teach music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and conduct the University Symphony and Champaign-Urbana Symphony. It was there that he met Paulin, whom he married in 1978. After he retired from the university, they lived in the Chicago area, where he continued to conduct and teach privately.

Paulin said Vermel enjoyed skiing and tennis, but especially loved to travel. Together, they traveled all around the U.S. and Europe, including trips to visit his family in France. He also enjoyed a close relationship with his only daughter, Valerie Taylor.


Vermel and Paulin returned to Maine in 2014 and settled in Scarborough. They loved to go to the symphony, concerts and the Portland Museum of Art.

His final appearance as a conductor was in 2015 when the PSO welcomed back past conductors to celebrate its 90th season. It was the first time he conducted at Merrill. When he led the PSO, it played its concerts in the old City Hall Auditorium.

Vermel, then 91, said before the concert that he was excited to be back with the orchestra after 40 years. He opened the program conducting Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont from memory, something he rarely did.

“He walked out on stage and the entire audience jumped to their feet and cheered and applauded,” Paulin said. “It was so meaningful to him.”

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