When pianist Julie Coucheron joined the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra for a concert on March 22, there was little in her cheerful demeanor and graceful performance to suggest that she had just received devastating news: Christopher Rex, former principal cellist for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, had just passed away. Coucheron chose to soldier on in the spirit of stoicism she’d learned from her years of collaboration and friendship with Rex himself. Her story joins the ranks of so many in the Atlanta music world who have been touched by the loss of one of their most beloved and esteemed members. A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday.
Rex joined the ASO as principal cellist in 1979 and performed for 39 seasons before announcing his retirement in 2018. Before the ASO, Rex was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy for seven seasons.
Born February 1, 1951 to Charles Gordon Rex and Betty McCauslin Rex in Winter Park, Florida, Christopher Rex began to learn the cello at the insistence of his father — who similarly assigned his brother Charles to the violin. Filmmaker Cristina Cassidy’s 2016 documentary Concerto for Two Brothers tells the story of the brothers’ early life with unflinching candor: Their father was an immensely talented musician and composer in his own right, but also a menacing patriarch who ruled over his sons’ lives with an iron fist.
The film weaves a complex narrative of abuse and terror at the hands of a father who would drive his sons to achieve musical greatness (Charles joined the New York Philharmonic in 1981) even as his own physical and mental health rapidly declined. The end result would be two immensely accomplished musicians who found themselves sorting through the trauma inflicted by their father well into the elder years of adulthood.
For all that he endured, it would have been understandable for Chris Rex to emerge as a bitter, resentful man. His friends and colleagues, however, remember him as a warm, kindhearted and reassuring presence — a testament to his own gentle nature and personal drive to transcend his father’s influence.
Coucheron, who would form the Christiania Trio with Rex alongside her brother David, says Rex had a cheerful, enthusiastic spirit. “That was one of the things that was so special about playing with him,” she said. “He always was so happy to play together. He was always so positive and it was always a joy to even just rehearse together.”
David Coucheron, violinist and concertmaster for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, met Rex when he auditioned for his post in 2009. “He was really interested in playing chamber music together,” says Coucheron. “The first rehearsal we had was so much fun — we just instantly connected and he was making me laugh so hard. It was a great way to make me feel included in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra family.”
He quickly learned about Rex’s signature brand of humor during that first rehearsal. “I left to get some water,” says Coucheron. “When I came back he had written a check to himself for two million dollars and in the memo line it said ‘coaching fee.’ That check is still in my room, on my mirror.”
The Coucheron siblings would go on to perform and tour extensively with Rex throughout the latter years of his life, including with the group The Georgian Chamber Players. They shared more than a decade of musical collaboration with Rex and, above all, friendship. “He was like a brother to David and I,” says Julie Coucheron. “He was always trying to help out in our personal lives. He always wanted us to be happy.”
“He was somebody I could confide in,” says David Coucheron. “Somebody that always gave great advice.”
Rex was also an avid painter, and created the cover art for The Georgian Chamber Players’ 2006 two-CD set, Our Sunday Best.
His radiant warmth was something that would extend to Rex’s command of the ensembles he performed with, both large and small. ArtsATL co-founder and classical music reviewer Pierre Ruhe recalls Rex’s particularly skillful handling of a tense moment with the ASO. “It was a concert 20 years ago with an inexperienced conductor, might have been a Beethoven symphony, and things were about to come off the rails,” says Ruhe. “All of a sudden you could see and feel Chris taking charge of that runaway train. He wasn’t slowing down, but by force of personality — and maybe playing slightly louder or more rhythmically taut — he single-handedly got the whole orchestra to focus and play together. Basically, it was: Stop looking at the conductor and listen to each other. The whole incident lasted just a couple of seconds, but it was really impressive.”
Rex met his wife, Dr. Martha Wilkins, in 1979, shortly after he joined the ASO. “I remember when he walked onstage and I thought ‘Hmmm . . . that’s the kind of person I want to meet,’” she remembers. A friend of Wilkins’ was attempting to flirt with Rex from their third-row seats, an act that would lead to the pair eventually meeting Rex at a later concert.
Rex and Wilkins would go on to date for six years before tying the knot. Despite Rex’s tremendous reservations in light of his own childhood, the couple would eventually have children of their own — daughter Caroline Bethea and son Christopher Austell.
“He was always a great listener,” says Christopher Austell Rex. “Most people, when you tell them stories, their first instinct is to respond. But his first instinct was just to listen and try to put himself in your shoes.”
Rex’s ability to bring people together — both onstage and in friendship — made him a natural organizer of musical events. In 2001 he created the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival, an annual celebration. The festival would become a critical and commercial success and feature performances from Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Wynton Marsalis and Zuill Bailey, among many others. He also was the artistic director of the Madison Chamber Music Festival. Both festivals were passion projects for Rex.
“He found the right people to help him get [the Amelia Island festival] started and keep it going” says William Ransom, artistic director of the Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta. “Just getting those people to believe in you and your vision — that’s a talent in and of itself. It takes a very special personality, which Chris had.”
It’s a rare combination of skills indeed, one that Ransom acknowledges will make it a challenge to find Rex’s replacement. “They say everybody is replaceable but that’s simply not true,” he says. “It does take such a combination of so many gifts and skills and interests that he had. That’s going to be very difficult. I’m sure they’ll be fine but what an amazing start they had to have him at the helm.”
As one musician after another has lamented the loss of Rex and paid tribute to a brilliant musician and beautiful soul, an old friend from his days as a student at Juilliard joined the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on April 15 as guest cellist. In a special encore, he perform J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012: IV “Sarabande” as a tribute to Rex. That friend was none other than cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma.
“I love Chris Rex,” enthused Ma in Concerto for Two Brothers. “I love him as a human being and I love him as a musician. He’s someone who is intensely imaginative and creative. He has worked really hard to get to this moment of life affirming freedom.”
Martha Wilkins says music was her husband’s spiritual center. “I really do feel like Chris used his music as a way to serve God,” she says. “He felt like he could bring some passion and joy and soulfulness into somebody else’s life through the music that he could play.”
A memorial service will be held at Trinity Presbyterian Church on April 23 at 11 a.m,. and will feature performances of chamber music of particular importance to the Rex family.
There will also be a concert on May 9 in Rex’s honor to close this year’s Madison Chamber Music Festival.