Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Shining Light of Music and Humanity

It is interesting how differently we react to someone departing. Going away may not be even permanent as there is a likelihood that a person’s face will be seen again; yet people are elated and talk about a new beginning, in my field a Musical Spring. Then there are deaths which of course are permanent. Most of these are quickly forgotten, except by family and close friends. Occasionally a truly great individual passes away and thousands will keep on thinking of the person as he/she has deeply touched their lives. 

This past August 19th the father figure of Seattle’s classical music left us at an honorable age of 96. Vilem Sokol did more for young musicians than anyone I can think of, anywhere. He headed the Seattle Youth Symphony for 28 years and taught at the University of Washington for even a longer time, 1948-1985.  He inspired countless young people to become musicians and music lovers over the decades. With him at the helm, the SYSO organization reached its high point, an envy for the rest of America. Sokol was a father figure for everyone, beloved and admired. His own family was large with ten children, but his extended family was as huge as a big town. He worked tirelessly every day, bringing joy to the hearts of those thousands who were fortunate to have him as their guiding light.

Doing violin-related research I discovered a photo from not too long ago in which Vilem Sokol is having a conversation with two esteemed colleagues. The article linked to the picture talks about a famous violinist in Prague, Otakar Ševčik, whose life and work as a soloist and well-known pedagogue was quite familiar to me. What I didn’t know is the fact that Vilem’s parents in their wisdom had sent their son back to Czechoslovakia to study. Not only did he get a great musical education but also mastered the difficult language, unlike so many children of immigrants whose parents did their best to Americanize them, thinking this would make their success in the New World easier. Often elderly parents started forgetting what little English they had learned and their children had no way of communicating with them, a sad situation. I can remember the local opera company turning to Mr. Sokol for help with pronunciation when they produced a Czech opera, such as Dvořák’s Rusalka.
I remember playing as a part of a Mass honoring Vilem Sokol’s 90th birthday at St. James Cathedral here in Seattle. At the time it seemed like the iconic figure would live forever as he, a devout Catholic, gave us all an image of being close to a Saint. That he indeed was for so many music lovers. The orchestra in Heaven now has another great conductor on the podium.

I must return to a document of a very personal nature. I would not have made it public under different circumstances but since it refers to a difficult period in my life and Mr. Sokol's kind words and encouragement greatly helped me to survive, I think showing it here is in order.

The letter unexpectedly arrived about a year after a certain Mr. Meecham (today in Baltimore) called me in to discuss my contract and informed me that Gerard Schwarz was looking for new leadership. This was done shortly after I notified the Seattle Symphony that I needed surgery to remove a large tumor from my back. Mr. Schwarz never had the guts to talk one word to me about his unhappiness after my serving him for over a quarter of century, 20+ years of which here, or discuss his possible hormonal overload man-to-man. Add to the equation a local Mr. Kollektor who, I was told, offered the organization money to have me replaced. Anyway, by this time Schwarz, Meecham and the city’s most expensive law firm had lost their case in court and the issue was heading for mediation. This letter from Vilem Sokol gave me back my belief that goodness and compassion still existed and provided me with more strength to fight for justice than anyone else had been able to give. I shall treasure it for the rest of my life.

24 March 2005
Dear Ilkka:

Ever since you have been dealt an appalling blow by people you considered friends, I have tried to rationalize the reasons behind all of this.  Try as I might I cannot find any logical reason that has anything to do with your musicianship, your ability to play the violin superbly or your ability to lead a section of violinists, or for that matter the entire string section.

I’ve concluded after thinking about it for a long time that the reasons can only be political. You have become the scapegoat. You know as well as I who the culpable one is. Your dismissal from the orchestra is just a distraction from something else that may surface someday. It is my hope that it will.

Jenny and I continue to pray for you and for Marjorie. We admire both of you. You are not only admirable musicians but also high-principled human beings.

Continue standing up for your rights. Justice is on your side.
With my warmest regards,
(Bill Sokol)