Mar 112012

Milton Preves was my viola teacher during the mid- to late 1990s. At some point during our relationship, realizing what a treasure he was to the international viola community, I sat down with him to discuss his life. After he died I put this profile together. A shortened version of it ran in The Strad magazine in June 2001.



Last June Milton Preves died just short of his 91st birthday. Preves had been the principal violist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 47 years, and was regarded as the most eminent orchestral violist of his time. He was the last link to the orchestra’s founding a century earlier, and was one of a handful of violists featured on the CD set, The Recorded Viola: The History of the Viola on Record. The composer Ernest Bloch had dedicated two movements of the Suite Herbaique for viola and piano to him. “He was consumed with music,” his son told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He kept an incredible pace. He wanted to bring music to everyone.”

How well I knew. In 1995 I somewhat apprehensively called to ask if I could study with him. Though in his mid-80s, he was conducting two community orchestras a week and teaching viola and violin privately. Not only was he a legend in the viola world but he had a reputation for being a fearsome and no-nonsense teacher. A professional violinist I knew complained that the torturous practice regimen Preves imposed had left him almost crippled, and a professional violist who had studied with Preves laughed, when I asked about this. “One time I added up all the practice and solo pieces he had me working on,” he said. “It came to 13 hours a day.” The principal violist of my community orchestra said during his first three lessons with Preves all he played was a C major scale. “The greatest teacher I ever had,” he said worshipfully.

Despite my devotion to the viola, this kind of commitment was out of the question. As an amateur player I could spend at best an hour or two a night practicing. Additionally I was a latecomer to music making, having started violin at 19 and switched much later to the bigger, husky-voiced viola. So I was certainly nowhere near the standards Preves would expect of his students.

Nevertheless, he seemed happy to take me on. “Come on over Saturday morning, why don’t you?” he barked in his John Barrymore baritone when I phoned. In fact, he looked like the older Barrymore, with wispy white hair and a grizzled face. When I arrived at his gracious Glenview home, he led me up to his second floor practice studio with its dozens of framed and signed photos of the great conductors and musicians with whom he had performed.

“Play a little bit and let’s see what you can do,” he directed, then took a seat nearby and gazed vacantly out the window. I pulled out a Bach solo piece I had been working on and somewhat tentatively began. “Make a smoother string crossing,” he said right away,  “and slur groups of four, not eight.” I executed the phrase as directed and proceeded a few more measures. “Don’t shift there,” he said, still looking out the window. “Wait until you finish the measure, then shift.”

It was my first lesson in Preves’ remarkable teaching skills. He had an uncanny ability to detect bowing, fingering, phrasing and intonation problems while seated across the room, without seeming even to watch. Many teachers employ a “hands-on” approach to demonstrate correct methods, but Preves preferred to diagnose and remedy problems at a remove. Perhaps it was just as well, for he was too old to jump up to fix every mistake I made, and his hands were too gnarled from age and arthritis to play with any degree of accuracy. Occasionally, when he was particularly annoyed at some persistent malfeasance on my part, he would grab my viola to demonstrate. But the music was invariably out of tune.  “Play it like this, like this!” he would shout, over the discordant tones. Nevertheless, he made his point.

I came to his house every Saturday morning loaded with scale books, practice exercises and solo pieces. We assayed the dull but comprehensive studies of Sevcik, considered quaintly old-fashioned by many teachers today but de rigeur in Preves’ youth; the famous Kreutzer etudes (the best known being the one Jack Benny sawed away at on his television program) and various Baroque concerti. Nothing was ever quite finished; Preves would add new scales and exercises every week and admonish me to “keep at” the previous ones. Thirteen hours of daily practice wouldn’t have been enough to master it all, and yet the rigor and thoroughness of this approach, even compromised by my limited practice time, was undeniable. Most importantly, he helped teach me the most important lesson: how to teach myself.

My favorite moments with Preves were working up orchestra pieces. “We always play it like this,” he would say, penciling eminently sensible fingerings and bowings in his nearly unrecognizable scrawl on my music. He had performed and known the orchestra and chamber music literature so well and for so long he could tell me instantly what fingerings and bowings were perfectly suited for every phrase and effect. He would summon up performances from 40 and 50 years before when Jascha Heifetz or Maestro Reiner took certain passages “like this.” (“He had a tremendous memory,” noted Charlie Pikler, his successor as CSO principal violist. “There were very few fingerings or bowings written into the viola parts, because he had it all memorized.”)

On a dresser of his studio was a photo of him with the CSO String Quartet, which he co-founded in 1942 with the other principal string players of the Chicago Symphony. He looked unrecognizably handsome, like a young Leslie Howard. Another photo, blown up to the size of one wall, showed an older Preves taking a bow from the edge of Orchestra Hall’s stage after performing a concerto with the orchestra. A beaming Sir Georg Solti looked on.

Solti’s were the glory years, when the Chicago Symphony toured the world to universal acclaim and conductor and orchestra were hailed as sine qua non on the cover of Time magazine.  But the life of a professional orchestra musician was not so glamorous when Preves started out.

Born in Cleveland in 1909, Preves’ family moved to Chicago when he was 12 so he could pursue a violin career. He studied with some of the city’s great teachers—Leon Sametini, Max Fischl, Richard Czerwonky, Harry Diamond, and, as a conservatory student, with Raymond Gervin at the Institute of Music and Allied Arts. It was there, practicing 8 hours a day, that Preves honed his playing and teaching techniques. One night he showed up at the Institute for an orchestra rehearsal to find there were no violists, and he was drafted on the spot. While the two instruments are similar, the slightly larger and darker-toned viola can be more cumbersome to play. Notwithstanding the difficulties, he adapted to it quickly and within a short time was playing viola in chamber music groups and professional city orchestras, including the Little Symphony Orchestra, which performed weekly Sunday afternoon concerts at the Art Institute. Admission was 10 cents.

Most auspiciously, Mischa Mischakoff, the CSO’s concertmaster, recruited Preves to play in his string quartet. One night in 1933 Mischakoff’s quartet played a private concert at the Hyde Park home of Ralph Norton, a steel magnate and Chicago Symphony trustee. “Frederick Stock, the symphony’s conductor, was there and liked what he heard,” Preves recalled, “so when there was an opening I was invited to join the orchestra.” (This kind of favoritism was later replaced by the more democratic blind audition in general use today, in which players try out behind a screen.)

What was the CSO like then? Frederick Stock, orchestra founder Theodore Thomas’s successor (and assistant principal violist under Thomas), was conductor. Musicians from the Thomas era were still in the orchestra. The CSO played a 26-week season and the musicians made, on average, $60 a week. This was good money for the Depression, but it wasn’t sufficient to take care of Preves and his mother, whom he was supporting after his father, a well-known dress designer, had walked out on the family. (She died in 1939.) So Preves supplemented his CSO income by teaching, and he formed the Aeolian String Quartet, which toured and broadcast concerts on the radio.

Stock was “a very strict German conductor,” Preves said, who re-orchestrated the Bach B Minor Mass and arranged the Tchaikovsky piano trio for orchestra. Such large-scale arrangements are frowned on by purists today, but were not uncommon then—think of Stokowski’s arrangement of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in Disney’s “Fantasia.” Stock even composed a third and fourth movement for Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, based on the last two movements of the Schubert cello quintet. With Stock’s support Preves was promoted within the viola section, from last stand to assistant principal in 1936 and principal in 1939. (The principal’s role extends beyond merely leading the section. Principals are paid extra to arrange the section parts, coordinate with the other sections of the orchestra and consult with the conductor.)

Stock died in 1941 and was succeeded by Desire Defauw. It was around this time that, at Defauw’s urging, Preves and the other CSO string section principals founded the Chicago Symphony String Quartet. In Preves’ estimation Defauw was a “great” conductor but the Chicago music establishment was in the thrall of Claudia Cassidy, the Chicago Tribune’s feared music critic, whose tastes dictated careers. She disliked Defauw and he was replaced by Artur Rodzinsky for one year and Rafael Kubelik for three, followed by a series of guest conductors, until Fritz Reiner finally became a permanent fixture in 1953.

“I had a pretty busy life in those years,” Preves said with some understatement. By the early 1950s the CSO season had been extended to 42 weeks, and there was also the six-week Ravinia summer season. Preves toured with the CSO String Quartet, performing 50 or more concerts a year, and also played and recorded with the Budapest, Gordon and Fine Arts quartets. He accompanied Marian Anderson in a Brahms song recital at the Lyric Opera House and performed Ernest Bloch’s viola suite so movingly that the composer, in attendance, wrote and dedicated the Suite Hebraique to him. Preves was the dedicatee of other major viola works, too, including pieces by Alan Shulman and Philip Warner (the Chicago cellist Wendy Warner’s grandfather). He soloed well-known viola concertos with the CSO. In addition to performing, he taught violin and viola 40 hours a week at the Chicago Musical College as well as DePaul and Northwestern universities, sandwiching students into his busy schedule as early as 6 a.m. and as late as midnight.

As if that wasn’t enough, he started conducting. In 1948 he founded the North Side Symphony Orchestra and led it until 1973. At one time or another he also conducted the Wheaton Summer Symphony, Gary Symphony, Gold Coast Chamber, the Lake Shore Symphony and the Emeritus Chamber orchestras, as well as the CSO itself, in some free park concerts. However his most famous conducting stint was with the Oak Park-River Forest Orchestra, which he quit in 1962 to protest the symphony board’s refusal to seat a black violinist he had recruited. The incident generated headlines and Preves’ departure became a cause celebre. The publicity and ensuing civic soul-searching eventually led to a highly visible drive to integrate Oak Park, now one of the most diverse communities in the Chicago area.

Incredibly, Preves also took up another career. A good friend of his was a manager with The Equitable, and convinced Preves he could supplement his income selling life insurance part time, which he did from 1953-1965.

He was also raising a family—married in 1939, he and Rebecca Preves had two sons and a daughter—although he noted, with a rueful laugh, that with his schedule he didn’t get to see much of them. One son, David, was a good enough violinist to be invited by Reiner to join the CSO, but he declined, eventually becoming a successful business executive.

Preves told me about these accomplishments in his studio, where well into his ninth decade he was still giving lessons and preparing orchestra scores to conduct with his community orchestras twice a week. A plaque on his desk read: To kill time, try working it to death. “I was born for work,” he said dispassionately. “I like to work. Work is the main thing.” That week he had led the Emeritus Orchestra as well as a Winnetka string workshop in rehearsals, and played five hours with a Palatine orchestra. “That’s nothing for me, nothing like the old days,” he said.

As the CSO’s principal violist Preves was entitled to use the symphony’s 1723 Montagnana, thought by Mischakoff to be the greatest viola in the world. It was actually owned by CSO trustee Norton, who had a collection of old instruments that he loaned to the orchestra. Preves loved the Montagnana—“it was my left arm”—and he tried several times, unsuccessfully, to buy it from Norton. In 1953 Norton brought a Stradivarius violin to a CSO rehearsal and announced he was donating it to the orchestra. Preves cornered Norton during a break and asked him once again if he could buy the Montagnana. This time he had a more immediately compelling reason: Fritz Reiner was taking over as conductor and had a reputation as a brilliant but tyrannical leader. “If Reiner didn’t like somebody he’d fire them right on the stage,” Preves said.

Meanwhile, Preves had been offered the principal viola position at the Philadelphia orchestra under the renowned Eugene Ormandy and was tempted to take it. “I’m not sure if I’ll get along with Reiner,” he told Norton. But he felt the Montagnana was “part of me.” Norton replied that like the Strad and the other fine instruments in his collection, he was planning to will the viola to the orchestra. “But tell you what,” he said. “I’m going down to Florida for the winter, and when I get back in the spring, I’ll give it to you.”

Preves was ecstatic and stayed on with Reiner, with whom it turned out he was to have an excellent relationship. But while the orchestra was visiting Detroit for a concert Preves got a call from his wife: Norton’s son, Cal, had called her to say his father had died while in Florida, and all his instruments were being donated to the orchestra. Since Preves never got the deal in writing, there was nothing he could do. (Post script: several reputable instrument shops have subsequently cast doubt on whether the instrument is a genuine Montagnana. Nevertheless, it was appraised for $175,000 in 1960, and doubtless is worth many times that now. This is the same instrument that was stolen in 1996 and recovered 18 months later when a man bought it at a Chicago resale shop and tried to sell it to an instrument dealer for $150.)

Regarding instrument prices, Preves liked to tell the story of a rare Gasparo da Salo viola he was offered for $2,000 in the late 1930s. Playing on the Montagnana gave him no reason to shop around, and he turned it down. His friend Irving Ilmer bought the da Salo for $5,500 in the early ’50s, and later sold it to one of the Chicago instrument shops.  Subsequently it was bought by Nat Gordon, the principal violist of the Detroit Symphony, who sold it to another Chicago instrument shop for $400,000 in the mid-’90s. “They’re asking a million for it today,” Preves noted dryly. (Actually, according to the shop in question, it was sold to the New York Philharmonic several years ago for use by their principal violist. But the shop’s salesman agreed with Preves’ appraisal that the da Salo was now worth seven figures.)

Reiner was a superlative conductor, some say the greatest of the century, and many CSO recordings he made during his nine-year tenure are revered by collectors. But he lived up to his reputation as a podium tyrant and by way of protection, the orchestra members formed a players’ committee to give teeth to the musicians’ union and staunch the maestro’s dictatorial power. Preves wasn’t a particularly strong union man, by his own admission—his reputation and expertise were protection enough, as far as he was concerned—but he figured in one of the most famous labor disputes in the CSO’s history.

In 1963 Reiner died and was succeeded by the French conductor Jean Martinon, who quickly became disliked by some orchestra members for his Gallic disdain of certain players as well as by many subscribers for his programming of modern music. One of Martinon’s most controversial moves was to fire famed principal oboist Ray Still for alleged insubordination. “Still had no respect for Martinon and he didn’t mind showing it,” Preves said. While such peremptory dismissals weren’t uncommon then, the union challenged it, and the case was played out with various orchestra members testifying for and against Still. At a hearing Preves was called on to describe how Still, a rabid baseball fan, would listen to games on his transistor radio during rehearsals, which some musicians felt was distracting and disrespectful. Still won his job back, but for many years refused to speak to the musicians who had sided against him, including Preves and principal flutist Donald Peck.

The orchestra was riven with such personnel disputes when Solti was named in 1969 to succeed Martinon. Shortly after arriving in Chicago, Solti called Peck and Still into his office and told them point blank if they didn’t put aside their differences he would quit. The feuding players acquiesced and soon the force of Solti’s tremendous personality had transformed the orchestra into the most powerful and renowned ensemble in the world.

“We all got along pretty well after that,” Preves said.

Preves was highly respected—if somewhat feared—by his CSO viola colleagues. “His dedication was rare,” said Bill Schoen, assistant principal violist and Preves’ stand partner from 1964 to 1988. “He always came in early to review the music, and when playing he was supremely aware of what the other sections were doing. He knew everything about the orchestra.” But Preves could sometimes level a withering scorn on the viola section. “He would turn around during a rehearsal and holler, ‘Maybe we should give tremolo lessons,’” Schoen recalled. “If you were faking, he’d tell you to your face.”

In 1986, in his sixth decade with the CSO, Solti asked Preves to retire. Preves had suffered several severe nosebleeds during concerts, perhaps from high blood pressure, and once Solti ordered him offstage between movements to recover. He was also slowing down. “He no longer had the chops,” was how one of his former students put it. When I asked him about it, Preves demurred, saying merely that he realized it was time to go. But still, even 10 years later, it was evident how much he missed the symphony and felt he knew far more about orchestra music than “the newer men,” as he somewhat disparagingly described them.

I studied with Preves for two years. At one point, when my company downsized and I lost my job, he cut my lesson fee in half so I could continue. But finally, despite the progress we made together, my schedule got too busy and I had to quit. We would talk subsequently and he always invited me to return. “Come on back when you want, Les,” he would say. “We have lots more to learn.”

And he kept up his legendary teaching and conducting regimen until near the end, when cancer surgery left him bedridden. A few days before he died he called Sarah Barach, a 93-year-old Skokie violinist whom he had known and played with for decades. “Sarah,” he said in a whisper, “never quit. Never quit. Always keep playing.”

It was his epitaph.

  4 Responses to “Saturdays With Milton”

  1. This is delightful. Your description of his deep knowledge of music and playing reminds me very much of my violin teacher from Syracuse, Carl Silfer, who passed away in the same year.

  2. listening to the reiner/cso recording of don quixote on kusc tonight, had to look up who the fantastic violist was and came across your tribute. thank you, beautifully written, makes me sad i never met him!

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