When violist Norma Durst was honored onstage upon her 2004 retirement after 56 years with the Seattle Symphony, conductor Gerard Schwarz...

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When violist Norma Durst was honored onstage upon her 2004 retirement after 56 years with the Seattle Symphony, conductor Gerard Schwarz noted in his remarks that she also had introduced generations of youngsters to music as a teacher.

“Thank you, Norma!” bellowed one voice from the audience. It might well have been quite a chorus, if all of Miss Durst’s grateful students and listeners had been equally vocal. The violist and teacher, who died Tuesday at 83 after a battle with cancer, had been with the orchestra for more than half its then-100-year history. A beloved figure in the orchestra and in the classroom, where she taught in Seattle public schools for 31 years (as well as 12 years at the Cornish College of the Arts), Miss Durst is fondly remembered by her friends and colleagues.

“Norma was an extraordinary spirit,” said Schwarz. “She had a great love of music, especially Brahms. She was an extraordinary musician and human being, and a very, very dear friend. Her contribution to the Seattle Symphony for over 50 years and to so many students cannot be overstated. She touched so many people’s lives with her passion, her charm, her brilliance and her compassion for all.”

Conductor and fellow violist Vilem Sokol and his daughter Jenny, a violinist and author, visited Miss Durst in the nursing home about 10 days before her death.

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“She was extremely weak, and probably unable to see, but whispered responses to what we said to her,” Jenny Sokol said. “She even sang a little song for Dad. Music was a part of her consciousness until the end.”

Her orchestra colleague Nancy Griffin called Miss Durst “an important force in so many lives, both in the public schools and in the Symphony.”

Born in Eureka, Kan., Miss Durst began violin studies at 11, later switching to the viola. She went on to earn a B.A. in music education from the University of Washington, where she also did graduate work.

Her brother, Stanley Durst, remembers the old days when Miss Durst was practicing the violin. “There was a lot of squeaking and squawking at first, but finally it really sounded like music.” Stanley Durst said both Norma and their late brother studied with Mary Davenport-Engberg, who was the music director at the Seattle Symphony from 1921 to 1924.

“I loved my sister,” he said. “She was a wonderful person.”

Miss Durst’s years in the Seattle Symphony spanned a succession of famous maestros, including such legends as Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski and Sir Thomas Beecham (who gave Seattle the well-known warning against becoming a “cultural dustbin”).

Music was not just Miss Durst’s profession; it was her great love. After her retirement, she stayed close to the orchestra, joining in some rehearsals and assisting in the music library.

Miss Durst is survived by her brother, Stanley Durst, and his wife, Yvonne, as well as by 10 nieces and nephews. A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Nov. 3 at Calgary Christian Assembly, 6801 Roosevelt Way N.E., in Seattle. Gifts in her memory may be made to the church and to the Seattle Symphony, 200 University St., Seattle, WA 98101.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

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