Milton Katims

Violist/conductor who, inspired by Toscanini, made Seattle Symphony Orchestra an international force


Milton Katims, conductor and violist: born New York 24 June 1909; married 1936 Virginia Peterson (one son, one daughter); died Shoreline, Washington 27 February 2006.

Asked for his views on the conductor and violist Milton Katims, the composer Benjamin Lees didn't pull his punches: "He was a remarkable man, a wonderful and rare musician, and a very special human being." His fellow conductor Jonathan Sternberg admired Katims's economy of means: "He did what was necessary without flash, listened with a keen ear and achieved the maximum with the forces he led." Katims achieved excellence in both his professions - as a violist, he was the natural successor to William Primrose, the dean of American violists, and at the helm of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra he turned it from a provincial, part-time, semi-professional group into a company that became not only a local cultural icon but also an ensemble of international repute.

Katims was born in 1909 in Brooklyn to Russian and Austro-Hungarian parents whose full name, Katimsky, had its final syllable lopped off by an Ellis Island immigration official who thought it too long. Music was part of his life from the start: although his father worked in textiles, his mother, two brothers and sister were all musicians; Milton was only seven when he asked Arturo Toscanini for an autograph after a concert.

As an undergraduate at Columbia University he studied psychology, violin with Herbert Dittler and conducting with the Belgian-born violist and conductor Leon Barzin. His switch to the viola came at Barzin's prompting, as he told The Strad in 1996:

He told me that I was a good violinist, but there were 200 other violinists just as good in New York. He said, "I'll lend you my instrument, and, if you turn to the viola, you can become one of the far fewer competent violists." So, he lent me his big Gasparo da Salo, and it was love at first sound.

Barzin was conductor of the National Orchestral Association - a training orchestra - which Katims then joined as principal viola. Barzin encouraged him on to the podium, where he learned swiftly, as Jonathan Sternberg, about to cut his own teeth as a conductor of the NOA, recalled:

There were any number of times in the Thirties when Katims was Principal Violist of the National Orchestral Association that Barzin would ask him to take over the baton while he listened from the audience area, particularly new or unfamiliar music. . . He practised Leon Barzin's favourite maxim, hardly maintained today, that a conductor's baton technique should be understood and so impeccable as to be able to rehearse an orchestra without uttering a word.

In 1935 Katims joined the New York radio station WOR as violist and conductor, remaining until 1943, when he made one of the most important moves of his career, joining the NBC Symphony Orchestra as a first-desk viola (replacing William Primrose) under Toscanini, spending 11 years under that mercurial but inspiring baton, for the latter years (1947-54) acting also as the orchestra's principal guest conductor.

The association with Toscanini was a dream come true:

Toscanini was my idol as a boy. My mother used to sing with Toscanini, and I would sneak into Carnegie Hall to watch him. My whole concept of conducting came from him. There was a certain chemistry between him and the orchestra. It had an energy that could not be denied. The beats were not so important, although they were very precise. What was vital was what happened in between those motions.

His musical horizons were expanding in other directions, too. He gave viola master-classes at the Juilliard School and played in the New York Piano Quartet. He made frequent guest appearances with the Budapest String Quartet, often accompanying them into the recording studio. In 1952 he gave the premiere of Morton Gould's Viola Concerto and took part in one of the classics of the recorded repertoire when, at the festival Pablo Casals ran in Prades in south-west France - just over the Spanish border so Casals could thumb his nose at Franco - he played in Schubert's Quintet, along with Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, Casals and Paul Tortelier.

The second major development in Katims's career came in 1954, when he took up the chief conductorship of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which over the course of the next two decades he transformed beyond recognition. When he arrived in Seattle, he found the orchestra to be "a mixture of experienced professionals, schoolteachers and housewives". Seattle, he felt,

had the feeling of a small town. People were so completely different from New York. You could go into Frederick & Nelson [the department store], and a clerk would tell you where you could find something in another store. The orchestra played only a few concerts. Their pay was very meagre . . . the symphony and art museum were the only cultural institutions in the city. There was no theatre outside the University of Washington, no opera, no ballet.

Aided by his cellist wife, Virginia, who survives him after 70 years of marriage, Katims rolled up his sleeves and set about transforming musical life there:

I knew that it would be necessary to entice Seattleites off the ski slopes, the hiking trails and the water and into the concert hall, if I was to have the chance to persuade them to enjoy great symphonic music.

He expanded the orchestra's repertoire, bringing Seattle up to date with developments that had passed it by: Schoenberg's Erwartung, Stravinsky's Persephone, Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc, Janácek's The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Poulenc's La Voix humaine. He stepped up the family and outreach concerts in the suburbs. He booked dancers to appear with the orchestra, had paintings projected on screens and commissioned artists to paint during the performances - radical ideas in the 1960s, when the term "multimedia" didn't yet exist.

He arranged, and with his wife took part in, chamber-music concerts, calling in friends like Isaac Stern, the cellist Leonard Rose and pianists of the calibre of Claudio Arrau and Leon Fleisher. He devised a series, "Stars of the Future", to present promising young musicians, among them Murray Perahia, Kyung-Wha Chung and Yo-Yo Ma, who in 1992 sent a thank-you note on the occasion of a celebratory concert in Seattle:

Milton, thank you for believing in me and hiring me to play with the Seattle Symphony . . . when I was 15. Your support then, and afterwards, gave me the courage and confidence to go into the profession.

Guest engagements during this period took Katims across North America and to Israel and brought him to London; and he continued to champion new music. In 1961 he commissioned Benjamin Lees to write a large work, Visions of Poets, for soloists, chorus and orchestra, with a first performance in Seattle in May 1962, and two years later requested another piece, the orchestral Spectrum, for an orchestra he was conducting in California. On both occasions Lees was deeply impressed by Katims's professionalism:

as always, his approach . . . was meticulous, enthusiastic and dedicated. Little escaped him.

He often chided me about my frequent change of metres, asking whether I could write four or five consecutive measures in the same metre. But he never complained and executed these hurdles flawlessly. He was a composer's delight.

Although Katims quadrupled the number of the Seattle orchestra's subscribers, and his recordings brought it a reputation far beyond America's shining shores, matters began to turn sour in the early 1970s, when he and the board fell out over questions of repertoire and leadership style; some felt his overtly Romantic style favoured emotion over discipline. The audience took sides, too, and after a bitter struggle the 1975-76 season proved to be his last, when he moved to Texas for eight years as head of the School of Music at the University of Houston.

Katims continued to promote the viola during his conducting career, giving master-classes around the world, editing and transcribing music (some 30 scores in all), teaching at the Northwestern University in Chicago and the University of Washington; in 1985 he enjoyed a professorship at the Shanghai Conservatoire.

The estrangement with Seattle was not to last for ever: the Katims moved back there on retirement and again became treasured local dignitaries well into old age, lecturing, entertaining at home, fund-raising for the orchestra. Milton enjoyed painting and sculpture, and he and Virginia indulged their passion for tennis as long as they could - when he was 95, Katims complained to Lees that he had had to give up the game five months earlier, although his very last appearance on the court was only in October last year, by which time he had taken to joking that his opponents occasionally "manage to hit my racquet".

A passion for music underlay virtually everything Katims did. In one late interview he avowed that he would happily have taught and conducted unpaid, for the sheer joy it brought him; associating with great musicians and coaxing music out of orchestras had brought him a lifetime of delight.

In 2004 the Katims published a witty joint memoir the title of which summarises the outcome of two lives lived to the full: The Pleasure Was Ours.

Martin Anderson

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