Friends mourn longtime Highland Park resident, former CSO concertmaster Victor Aitay, 91
Pilgrim Chamber Players: Carol Honigberg, retired CSO violinist, Victor Aitay and Joel Honigberg, all of Highland Park.
Updated: September 3, 2012 6:15AM
CHICAGO -- A light in the world of classical music went out Tuesday with the death of violinist Victor Aitay, 91, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for nearly 50 years and its concertmaster from 1967 to 1986. He also was conductor of the Lake Forest Symphony from 1967 to 1988.
Aitay lived in Highland Park for decades, initially on a tree-lined street within walking distance of the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. His home also was an easy drive to the Drake Theatre at the now-closed Barat College in Lake Forest where the then-community orchestra rehearsed and performed throughout his tenure.
His home studio was filled with photographs of himself with top musicians over a career that spanned decades and included serving as associate concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra before coming to Chicago.
“He brought the most amazing soloists to the Lake Forest Symphony,” said violinist Alan Heatherington of Libertyville, current music director and conductor of that orchestra, which is now fully professional.
“Cellist Janos Starker, pianist Leonard Pennario, and his CSO colleagues. Bud Herseth, trumpet, and Dale Clevenger, French horn, are some I remember clearly,” he said.
After an audition with Aitay in a small room off the stage at the Gorton Community Center, Heatherington was invited to join the Lake Forest Symphony in Aitay’s second season. Though only in his 20s, he was concertmaster by the end of that first season.
“I played 10 years under his baton,” the violinist said. “He was an old school European-type conductor. You did it his way. But he was also a great musician, whose career was at the highest level. The players loved working with him.”
Aitay particularly enjoyed conducting the Lake Forest Symphony’s children’s concerts.
“He believed passionately in connecting with young people,” Heatherington said. “We’d do three concerts in one day, with bus loads of children filling up every performance.”
Aitay’s personal life was every bit as dramatic as the stirring operas or stormy symphonies that he played. Born in Hungary, he began studying violin as a child and was enrolled in the prestigious Franz Liszt Royal Academy of Music in Budapest at the tender age of seven. Other graduates included Janos Starker, Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti. Aitay played under the baton of the latter two, when they became music directors of the Chicago Symphony.
His talent was so prodigious that in 1941, when he was just 20, he was appointed concertmaster of the Hungarian Royal Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra. He organized the Aitay String Quartet and traveled extensively throughout Europe, giving recitals and appearing as soloist with major orchestras.
Because he was Jewish, however, when the Nazis over ran Europe, he was removed from those positions and placed in a forced labor camp.
After several attempts, the young man escaped and found his way back to Budapest. There he came under the protection of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, and was one of the more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews whose lives were saved by that heroic man.
In November 1945, Aitay married Eva Vera Kellner, herself a survivor of Auschwitz. They immigrated to the United States in 1946. The following year he joined the Pittsburgh Symphony at the invitation of its conductor, Fritz Reiner. Reiner then invited him to play in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and Aitay soon joined the Chicago Symphony in 1954, which Reiner was then conducting.
He found his true home at the Chicago Symphony, organizing the Chicago Symphony String Quartet with colleagues violinist Edgar Muenzer, violist Milton Preeves and cellist Frank Miller.
During an interview with Pioneer Press just prior to his retirement in the summer of 2003, Aitay spoke about his years with the symphony. He keenly remembered the summer that Igor Stravinsky came to Ravinia to conduct his own compositions.
“He was in his 80s, but when he began to conduct, he lost 20 years,” he recalled. Of his long and distinguished career in music, which included international tours with the Chicago Symphony and working with the world’s finest conductors, he said simply, “It has been a privilege.”
Aitay and his wife had a daughter, Ava Aitay-Murray, and a granddaughter, Ashley Murray. Eva preceded him in death in November 2008.
Through the years Heatherington kept in touch with the great violinist, regarding him as a mentor. He plans to dedicate the first concerts of the Lake Forest Symphony Sept. 7 and 8 to Aitay’s memory.
“I have a treasure trove of memories about him,” he said. “Most recently I visited Victor on his 90th birthday. Pianist Lukas Vondracek and I went over to his apartment in Highland Park and played the Dvorak Sonatina for him. He was very pleased and very complimentary.
“It was the last time I saw him.”
At the Ravinia Festival July 25, music director and conductor James Conlon dedicated the concert featuring violinist Joshua Bell to the memory of Victor Aitay.
Services are at noon Friday, July 27, at Piser Funeral Services, 9200 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie. Interment immediately follows at Memorial Park Cemetery, 9900 Gross Point Road, also in Skokie.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the DePaul University School of Music, or the Merit School of Music.