The Hungarian-born American conductor, violinist and scholar, Sandor Salgo, was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, the son of Morris and Rose Sálgo. He attended the Franz Liszt academy of Music in Budapest where he studied violin; his teachers included Imre Waldbauer, Leó Weiner, Zoltán Kodály, and Béla Bartók, graduating in 1928. Further violin studies followed with the great violin master Carl Flesch in Dresden (1928) and with the distinguished conductor Fritz Busch in Berlin (1929). The conducting teacher to whom he said he owed the most was George Szell, whom he studied with much later, in Princeton in the 1940’s.
Sandor Salgo began his professional career as a violinist with the Roth String Quartet. In the 1930’s, he played in several European orchestras. He was concertmaster of the Kings Theater Orchestra, Budapest (Budapest Opera), where he played under Dohnányi, Richard Strauss, Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, and Hans Knappertsbusch,. For three weeks he played violin under Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini at Bayreuth. He also studied conducting with Richard Strauss in Switzerland in the summer of 1935.
A clear standout, his early career was affected by the prewar Anti-Semitism then prevalent in Hungary. In 1937, Sandor Salgo and a string quartet would serenade the bed-ridden wife of the American Ambassador to Hungary. America's walls were closed to immigrants, but the Ambassador refused to leave Salgo behind and he was afforded a special visa to America. Salgo came to the USA for the first time in 1937, playing the violin with the Roth Quartet on a coast-to-coast tour. Later, worried about the rise of fascism in Europe, Salgo wrote to Princeton University - where the quartet had performed - inquiring about positions. He immigrated to the USA in 1939, after the university offered him a job teaching violin and theory at its Westminster Choir College, where he stayed 10 years, and met and married his wife, Priscilla in 1944. There he conducted and taught music; he also performed chamber music at Princeton University during that period, while continuing conducting studies with George Szell in Manhattan. It was during this time at Princeton that Albert Einstein attended one of Salgo's concerts in 1942. He sent him a letter of appreciation saying, "Mr. Sandor Salgo is a musician of high standing. The concert he gave ... has made a deep impression on me". Later, the two me met to play violin duets by Antonio Vivaldi. Salgo recalled that Einstein was not a very good violinist, and that once, one of the musicians in a string quartet with which he was playing shouted at him, "What's the matter with you, Albert? Can't you count?" Starting in 1943 Salgo served for three years in the U.S. Army, playing glockenspiel in the marching band during World War II. He became a USA citizen in 1946 (or 1944). In 1947 he joined the Roth quartet again for another tour of the USA. Salgo was asked to conduct the Israeli symphony but politely declined saying, "I came here to be an American." While he returned to Europe later in his life, Salgo refused ever to visit Hungary or even speak Hungarian, because of the repressive government during his youth, the anti-Semitism, and in the Nazi years, the holocaust.
In 1949 at the instigation of Loran Crosten, the first chairman of Stanford University’s two-yearold Music Department, and the invitation of President J.E. Wallace Sterling, Sandor Salgo came to Stanford and was warmly received by student musicians who were fascinated by the brilliance of his musicianship and conducting. At Stanford, Salgo taught courses on the literature of the symphony, the concerto and the education of conductors. He was equally successful in his courses for non-music students, in particular his L.v. Beethoven course, which he gave for some 10 years. One year it had the second-highest enrollment of any course at Stanford, second, he recalled with much amusement, to a course in sexual behavior. Salgo later taught doctoral candidates in orchestral conducting. The impact of his teaching was once attributed to "a combination of his courtly, European manner and the force of his scholarship and knowledge" and a "gentle, down-to-earth quality to his lectures, which are designed to help listeners make more sense of classical music." "The only way to understand music is to see how it is put together," he said. "It is what is behind those notes. It is the poetry of it." One of his more celebrated students, the late Denis de Coteau, former music director of the San Francisco Ballet, who received the DMA degree under Salgo in 1964, recalled, "When I went to work with him at his home, I didn't feel like I was a student. I felt like a friend. He has a humanness about him."
For 24 years during that period, as professor of music at Stanford University, Sandor Salgo was the director of opera and orchestras (1949-1974). He began by addressing the orchestra in his Hungarian-accented English as “my dears,” and we succumbed completely to his charm and mastery. He conducted the orchestra in an increasingly adventurous repertory that included works of Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Copland, Henri Dutilleux, Sessions, Carter, and Alban Berg. Milhaud's Stanford Serenade was dedicated to the distinguished Los Angeles oboist Donald Leake, who had played at the Carmel Bach Festival, as well as to Salgo and the Stanford Orchestra, who together gave its premiere in 1970. He also conducted opera. 20th-century works included Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (both of which were West Coast premieres), Luigi Dallapiccola’s Night Flight, Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges (also a West Coast premieres), and operas by Francis Poulenc and Lukas Foss. The familiar repertory was represented by such works as Verdi’s Otello, Verdi's Falstaff, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, and Rossini’s Le Conte Ory and other operas by Mozart, Gluck, Dvorák. The orchestra was well schooled in the great classics of the repertory with the symphonies of Mozart, L.v. Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Berlioz and Tchaikovsky. A brilliant time ensued for his orchestra, chamber music groups, performance of works by student composers, and the violin and viola students he taught. He "discovered" Jess Thomas, then a graduate student there, and gave the tenor his first roles. On May 23, 1957, he conducted the first musical performance in Dinkelspiel Auditorium: the West Coast premiere of The Ballad of Baby Doe, a romantic opera set in the silver mining days of the Old West. The Stanford Orchestra had a moment of fame when it played Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra under his direction for the Music Educator’s National Conference in 1961. Salgo marked his retirement in 1974 by conducting four gala performances of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni in Memorial Auditorium.
Alexandra Hawley who now (2007) teaches flute in the Music Department, described playing in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra under Salgo as the “highlight of my student life. He was very, very warm, and gracious. He was enthusiastic and spar. He really emphasized the spiritual nature of the music. He would say, ‘Oh, my dear, you must play with your heart on the music stand.’ He really wanted us to tap into all the emotional joy or pain that was in the music”.
Although the orchestra was the hub of instrumental music, Salgo carefully organized chamber music ensembles under his own supervision and that of student assistants, because he believed that the foundation of good ensemble in the orchestra was to be learned in playing chamber music; three or four concerts were scheduled every quarter played by quartets, duos or trios with piano, or wind ensembles. Musicians from other departments, faculty and townspeople, many with considerable skill and devotion to music, took part in performances: distinguished physicists, medical doctors, mathematicians, poets, all combined in harmony with student musicians.
Salgo’s influence and accomplishments extended well beyond campus. The musical community of the greater San Francisco Bay Area benefited greatly from maestro Salgo from the first years of his arrival. He conducted the San Jose Symphony for 19 years (1951-1970), the Modesto Symphony for 20 years (1951-1970), the Marin Symphony for 33 years (1956-1989). He built the Marin, San Jose, and Modesto Symphonies - community orchestras that were mostly volunteer when he took over their podiums - into professional regional orchestras of significant quality. During his tenure, the Marin Symphony drew a large and loyal following and its programming was exemplary. In addition, he served as music director of the chamber music series at the Paul Masson Music at the Vineyards in the mid-1950’s, and guest conducted with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1956. He introduced more works to the Bay Area than any other conductor. These included in Marin the first West Coast performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, Arthur Honegger's Jeanne d'arc au bûcher, Henri Dutilleux, Frank Martin, Szymanowski's and Milhaud's Second Violin Concertos, and Virgil Thomson's Mother of Us All.
In 1956 Sandor and Priscilla Salgo began directing the Carmel Bach Festival. They developed the Carmel Bach Festival from a short local event into a nationally recognized celebration of Bach's music, with three weeks of concerts and recitals, and performances of the cantatas and of one of the Passions or the B Minor Mass (BWV 232) each year. Often an opera was featured, with memorable performances of L.v. Beethoven's Fidelio, Monteverdi's Orfeo, and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, Il Clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte, and Don Giovanni. Performing an extraordinary span of the Baroque repertory and works from the Classical period, he pursued a middle road between the romantic and modern sensibility and the viewpoint of early music revivalists. Salgo served as the festival's music director for 36 years from 1956 to 1991. Robert Commanday, the long-time music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, summarized Salgo’s work as “the longest, strongest, most far-reaching career of any conductor in the Bay Area.”
Seemingly indefatigable after retirement from teaching, Salgo conducted the Berlin Staatsoper’s Fidelio (East Germany) in 1978 and concerts with the Staatsoper and Weimar Chamber Orchestra in 1979, as well as the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. Following retirement in 1974, he continued to give lectures on the campus. In 1991, he began a series of lectures for the Stanford Alumni Association, which continued for 6 years and was avidly attended. Then in 1994-1998 (when he was in his 90s) Salgo researched and wrote a tribute to a fellow musician, Thomas Jefferson, Musician and Violinist, a 88-page book published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2000. It was Jefferson, and specifically the Declaration of Independence, that he devoured as a 16-year-old and who inspired his earliest dreams of America. Salgo continued to lecture about his favorite topic - classical composers - long after retirement. In 1998, he returned to campus to talk about the great Russian composers, Sergei Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky and Prokofiev, in Campbell Recital Hall.
Salgo was perfectly suited to the role he was to play, not only in musical gifts, training, and experience, but also in temperament and style, which was gracious and patiently insistent - ideal for dealing with the range of musicians he faced here and the patrons. As one of his leading former students, Mark Volkert, assistant concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, was quoted as saying in Salgo's oral history about his B Minor Mass (BWV 232) performances, "No one captures the drama of the piece like Mr. Salgo. He's always scholarly, never mannered, and he captures the emotions just precisely. ... It was a romantic style, but beyond that there were the emotions that were lacking in what is called the authentic style." As an interpreter above all, Salgo devoted himself to making the expressive or spiritual message utterly clear and involving.
Awards accumulated: the German Order of Merit First Class for furthering German music (1972), the Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Service to Undergraduate Education from Stanford’s President, Richard Lyman (1974), then Chevalier des Arts et Lettres from the French government for furthering French music (1981).
Sandor Salgo, Professor of Music Emeritus at Stanford University, died at his home on campus on January 20, 2007 after he had been suffering from a heart condition and prostate cancer. He was 97 years old. He is survived by his wife Priscilla, his Deborah Dranove of Highland Park, Ill and two grandchildren, Daniel and Michael, of Chicago. The warmth of his charm, old-world manners and courtesy were irresistible. His lyrical baritone voice and his leonine mane no doubt contributed in small measure to his success as a charismatic conductor, but the emotional depth and intellectual brilliance of his musical technique made him unforgettable as a musician. He richly deserved the title of Maestro.