June 3, 2023

Thomas Stacy sometimes told the story of how, growing up as a boy in Arkansas, an Italian who had been dead for about 80 years changed his life.

He had studied piano with his mother, but when he heard a piece of music by the composer Gioachino Antonio Rossini, his focus shifted to another instrument and he decided to make a career out of it.

“I was fascinated by the sound of the oboe on a record we had of the overture to Rossini’s opera ‘The Silken Ladder’,” recalled Mr. Stacy herself in a 1996 interview with The Associated Press. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a musician.”

If the oboe was a somewhat unusual choice for a young musician, Mr. Stacy soon made the even more unconventional choice of specializing in the English horn, a confusingly named instrument that is not in fact a horn but rather a double reed instrument, an alto member of the oboe family.

In the following decades he became one of the best English horn virtuosos in the United States; he played with the New York Philharmonic for nearly 40 years, appeared as a guest soloist throughout the country and abroad, and collaborated on numerous recordings. Numerous composers wrote works especially for him, and he became something of an ambassador for his unusual instrument – performing programs using only English horns, conducting an annual summer seminar and encouraging an expansion of the repertoire.

Mr. Stacy died April 30 at a hospice in Southampton, NY. He was 84. His son Barton Stacy said the cause was heart failure.

Mr. Stacy was also an expert on the oboe d’amore, a baroque instrument with a mezzo-soprano range. In some recitals he alternated between English horn, oboe d’amore and traditional oboe. Whatever he played, critics praised his tone and his agility.

“Mellifluous melancholy is the principal orchestral stock of the English horn in trade,” John Henken wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 1988, while reviewing a recital at Trinity Lutheran Church in Reseda, California, where Mr. Stacy also performed the other played two instruments. “but Stacy demonstrated a much wider range of expression and sound. He could make the horn sing with almost human softness, or stutter with martial brilliance, all backed by the thumping acoustics of the Trinity shrine.

When asked why he chose the English horn as his main instrument, Mr. Stacy had a simple answer.

“It most resembles the human voice,” he said in the 1996 interview, “and has the most expressive potential in a more expressive range than other instruments.”

Thomas Jefferson Stacy was born on August 15, 1938 in Little Rock, Ark. His father, also called Thomas, was a farmer and cotton broker, and his mother, Nora Lee (Conditt) Stacy, was a housewife and church organist.

Growing up in Augusta, Ark., a small town northeast of Little Rock, he began his musical training on the piano, violin, and clarinet before settling on the oboe and then the English horn. When he was 14, he sold his motorcycle to buy one.

“It wasn’t a Harley or anything,” he told The New York Times in 1999, “just a small, lightweight motorcycle.”

He taught himself to play the oboe and English horn for the most part, with the help of a book that showed the fingerings. He was 17 and still in high school when the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY gave him a full scholarship.

“I started out on oboe with Eastman,” he said, “but I also played English horn in some of the performing groups. It was already my preference. It fits my musical personality like a glove.”

While at Eastman he met a fellow student, Marie Elizabeth Mann. They married in 1960, the same year both graduated and Mr. Stacy joined the New Orleans Philharmonic. He later played with the San Antonio Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra before joining the New York Philharmonic in 1972.

He performed more than 70 times as a soloist with the Philharmonic before leaving in the fall of 2010. By this time, a number of works had been written specifically with him, including Ned Rorem’s Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra, which had its world premiere at Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan in 1994. Alex Ross, reviewing the performance in The Times, found parts of the work “curiously fragmentary and unfocused”. But, he added: “Mr. Stacy brought together these disparate impressions with a rich tone and dazzling technique.”

In addition to his wife and son Barton, Mr. Stacy, who lived in Hampton Bays, NY, is survived by another son, Phillip, and two grandchildren.

In the 1996 interview, Mr. Stacy talked about how a musician of his caliber remained sharp.

“The better you are, the harder it is to improve,” he said, “and that’s what I think about the most, how to improve. It’s like chipping golf balls to the green with an 8 iron. You have to practice starting and stopping notes so they sound good.”