MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Remembering Toby Saks

Toby Saks

Toby Saks

Yesterday evening Seattle’s Benaroya Hall was the gathering place for a large crowd of musicians, music lovers, friends, and members of a very extended family who were there to commemorate Toby Saks. She died two and a half months ago, just after a particularly successful edition of the annual summer Seattle Chamber Music Society Festival, her baby, had come to an end.

Toby Saks’s legacy as a cellist, educator, festival organizer, champion of new talent, and overall remarkable human being was recalled last night from many different angles. There were moving personal anecdotes from her circle of friends and peers. Most significantly, the event centered around performances featuring a combination of local musicians and others traveling from around the country — over 60 musicians, all told. They made it clear that it is through living music most of all that Toby would want to be remembered.

Quite a few were wearing buttons custom-made with a photo of the cellist smiling and the inscription “I’m Here for Toby.” The official program was framed by excerpts from Toby’s extensive archives — performances restored from reel-to-reel tapes and converted to digital format by her brother, Jay David Saks, a musical producer for the Metropolitan Opera.

Toby Saks - (c)Seattle Chamber Music Society

Toby Saks – (c)Seattle Chamber Music Society

One of the restored pieces listed in the program was of the Dvořák Cello Concerto as recorded by Toby at 19 with the Kol Yisrael Symphony Orchestra (in Jerusalem, 1961). Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony’s conductor laureate, spoke eloquently of the first time he had heard her playing, which happened to be this very work. It took place at the High School of Performing Arts in New York – her alma mater, where Schwarz was then studying – as Toby as en route to participating in and winning the Pablo Casals Competition in Israel.

Schwarz reminded us that Toby was among the very first women cellists of the New York Philharmonic and noted the many ways in which her musicality continued to astonish and inspire him throughout their decades together in Seattle. Schwarz himself led a string orchestra (some Seattle Symphony players with mostly SCMS associates) in a rich-voiced account of the “Elegia” movement from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings to open the celebration. For all the sense of loss and the meditative, even solemn character of most of the musical selections, that’s exactly what the event was: “This is a celebration of life,” her husband, Dr. Martin Greene, reminded everyone. “It’s not about mourning.”

Greene introduced a video tribute looking back over Toby’s 30 years heading the Chamber Music Festival she had founded in 1982. Her fellow musicians competed to outdo each other with their praise and gratitude for how much she had influenced their lives, their careers, converging on a shared theme of “Mama Tobs” as an insatiably generous and passionate advocate for music. Violinist James Ehnes, who took over as artistic director of SCMS two years ago, described what a vital force she had been, operating a complicated network and interacting with hundreds of musicians through the years. Robin McCabe, director of University of Washington’s School of Music, recalled Tobyu’s “feisty” vitality and fierce love of her students.

Of the many remarkable musicians who were on hand to perform in Toby’s honor, cellist Robert deMaine’s performance of the Largo from Chopin’s Cello Sonata (with pianist Jon Kimura Parker) struck me as especially heart-felt, to the point that his warmth of phrasing seemed to be speaking directly to Toby – cello to cello, as it were.

Toby Saks

A particularly notable moment was the premiere of a new piece, spontaneously composed in memory of Toby Saks by Lawrence Dillon as soon as he learned of her passing. Dillon had gotten to know her only recently in connection with the chamber work he was commissioned to write for this past summer’s festival. His Passing Tones, for three cellos and violin (Ehnes and deMaine, Jeremy Turner, and Andrés Díaz). This compact, elegiac essay carried a poignant reminder of the principles of ensemble and the individual voice, the creative tension between them, that’s at the heart of chamber music making – and about which Toby was so passionate.

Martin Greene introduced the closing number, remarking there could be no better way to end than with a composer his wife especially loved, rendered by an orchestra of her favorite instrument, the cello. And so 19 cellists took the stage, with Schwarz again conducting, to play the arrangement by Heitor Villa-Lobos of Bach’s Prelude No. 8 in E-flat minor from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier. A prelude, not a postlude, speaking worlds about the enduring ways in which Toby touched the lives of those around her.

Filed under: chamber music, new music


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