She was the cellist with the bright auburn hair and even brighter smile. Karen Blockley, co-principal cellist and a member of the Bakersfield Symphony for more than 40 years, died Monday morning at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital.
Blockley, who had just celebrated her 55th birthday, was fighting an aggressive cancer, according to her husband, Ted, and the treatments were further impairing her health. Blockley said his wife recently contracted pneumonia and was admitted to the hospital.
"They treated her for that, but there was just nothing left -- it just knocked the stuffing out of her," he said.
Mrs. Blockley is survived by her husband; two children, Anna and Ricky, and their respective families, including granddaughter Cecilia.
"More than anything else, she loved her family," Blockley said.
But there was one more member of the family: the cello.
"She wove that into just about everything," her husband said.
That "everything" included her role as a wife and mother, performer, and also her roles as a business owner and educator.
Born Karen Shively, the Bakersfield native first encountered the cello while in grade school when a teacher suggested she learn the instrument. She began studying privately with Beverly Lambourne, a member of what was then known as the Kern Philharmonic. The student joined the orchestra's cello section as an eighth-grader, eventually earning the co-principal chair of the cello section. She remained with the orchestra until the middle of the 2012-13 season, when her illness forced her to take a leave of absence
"Most of the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra musicians grew up here, studied here; they often joined the orchestra through their teachers," said BSO conductor John Farrer. "Karen was definitely a member of that family -- she kind of grew up in the orchestra."
Beyond her abilities as a musician, Farrer praised his friend's character, noting her work ethic, professionalism, reliability and versatility. But there was something more.
"Always the thing that sticks in my mind is her intelligence and always a positive, happy attitude," Farrer said. "I can't ever remember Karen ever being in a bad mood."
Regular BSO audience members will recall the cellist with the head of bright auburn hair, sitting next to principal cellist Diane Malecki, with whom she shared the first chair stand since the 1989-90 season.
"We just enjoyed playing together so much; it was pure joy," said Malecki, whose friendship with Blockley spanned an entire lifetime -- as high school classmates, cello students under Lambourne, as well as orchestra members.
"It was an honor to have her as my stand partner -- not only as a friend, but as a wonderful cellist," Malecki said.
"I prayed and prayed that she would join me again," Malecki said, after Blockley took her leave of absence. "But now she will be right beside me in spirit. I'm sure of that."
Even her career in business can be traced to her apprenticeship in music. Mrs. Blockley, who owned Air and Sea Travel, learned the trade while working part time for Lambourne Travel Agency, the family business of her cello teacher.
"What (her career) ultimately allowed her to do was give her the freedom to do more music," Blockley said.
Family trips often included music and the cello, whether continuing her own education by attending chamber music workshops in Oregon, an international cello exposition in Russia with Mstislav Rostropovich, or even arranging a trip to Italy to include a stopover at Cremona, where the famed Stradivarius instruments were made.
"She came home with a cello," her husband noted.
At home, the cellist continued to stretch herself as a performer, playing in several string quartets and other chamber groups, performing both established works and new compositions. She was the first call for most musicians, making herself available for any kind of musical event, often for little or no pay. When I was pursuing my master's in choral conducting, she did me the great kindness of performing for my recital as well as numerous other performances, and always brought with her a sunny attitude, profound musical insight and lovely playing.
Mrs. Blockley was a dedicated teacher as well. She was part of the adjunct faculty in the CSUB music department, had a private cello studio, and in what may be her most enduring musical project, served as president of the Bakersfield Youth Symphony Orchestra.
When I last interviewed her, she was cataloguing the orchestral library of the late conductor Richard Rintoul. The teacher was overjoyed that she had been able to acquire Rintoul's library of some 700 orchestra scores and parts, and had spent an entire summer organizing the library so it could serve the student musicians.
"She loved the teaching," her husband said. "She was always glad to see students excel."
Karen Blockley will be missed by her family and by her extended family of fellow musicians and students, not just for the music she made, but for the happy person she was.
Funeral services are pending.
Susan Scaffidi, a regular Californian contributor, is an accomplished musician who has a long family history with the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra