TAMPA — Her French horn softened the edges of works by Beethoven and Brahms, building bridges of sound between the woodwinds and the trumpets. That is the purpose of the horn, and it suited Justine LeBaron because that is how she led others. The longtime principal French horn player for the Florida Orchestra, Mrs. LeBaron was both a team player and a natural star.
A former Ford model who appeared in Vogue, Look, Glamour, the Saturday Evening Post and Sports Illustrated, Mrs. LeBaron did not seem to need the attention that came her way naturally. So she cast it aside in favor of her first love, which was fine music.
A few years after joining the orchestra, she co-founded a brass quintet in the mid to late 1970s that still plays for private audiences today.
She also taught at Florida Southern College and represented the orchestra in collective bargaining issues.
Mrs. LeBaron, who brightened the orchestra with her distinguished playing and her laughter for more than 30 years, died on June 13 of myelodysplastic syndrome. She was 65.
"There is no doubt that Justine defined the sound of our horn section," said Michael Pastreich, the orchestra's president and CEO. "She helped define what the orchestra became, and not just onstage."
Mrs. LeBaron joined the orchestra in the 1974-1975 season, and moved to the principal horn position halfway through the year.
As such, it was her solos audiences heard during masterworks by Brahms, Tchaikovsky and others. The job comes with unavoidable risks, not the least of which is the instrument itself.
"The French horn is kind of treacherous," said Richard Sparrow, a French horn player with the orchestra since 1984. "With other instruments like the piano, you just push down a key and you are sure what note is going to come out.
"It takes a very special kind of person to first choose to be in that position, and to be able to continue in that position."
Former longtime orchestra member Don Owen, who played the trumpet, first became acquainted with Mrs. LeBaron by sitting behind her. "You could say I fell in love with the back of her head," Owen, 74, has often said.
At the time, Owen and Mrs. LeBaron had emerged from first marriages. They founded a brass quintet with other orchestra members. Owen and Mrs. LeBaron married in 1983.
A Long Island, N.Y., native, Mrs. LeBaron studied music at the State University of New York at Potsdam. She also began modeling and appeared on track for a high-profile career, posing with the likes of Candice Bergen and Christie Brinkley, her husband said. The Ford modeling agency was about to send her to Paris when she decided to return to music.
"She was always admired for her beauty, that's for sure," said Carolyn Wahl, a French horn player who joined the orchestra the same year as Mrs. LeBaron. "But with Justine, there was another thing happening, too. When she walked into a room, she would engage people. People felt comfortable with her."
An odd highlight: Mrs. LeBaron was on the field at Tampa Stadium prior to the 1991 Super Bowl, appearing to accompany Whitney Houston singing The Star-Spangled Banner. "The whole thing was a fake," Owen said.
The performance, which nonetheless went platinum, was recorded separately by the orchestra and Houston about a week before the game, he said.
Mrs. LeBaron continued to play with the orchestra through 2006, though the last decade was marked by a struggle with cancer. Breast cancer surfaced in 2002. She underwent surgery and recovered, but myelodysplastic syndrome, a group of disorders affecting bone marrow, followed. Mrs. LeBaron attempted a brief comeback to the orchestra but then retired for good. She sold her instrument.
The talent she mastered for so long is hard for her husband, who has taught music to college students himself, to put into words.
"There is an 'it' factor to it that you will never be able to put your finger on," he said. "It's like good art. Whatever that magic is, she had it."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.