Vilem Sokol, beloved godfather of Seattle classical music and an internationally prominent conductor, professor and violist, died Friday at age 96.
He was born in a log cabin in Pennsylvania, but his favorite place became the conductor’s podium.
Vilem Sokol, who died Friday of cancer in Seattle at age 96, was the beloved godfather of the city’s classical music and an internationally prominent conductor, professor and violist.
As longtime music director of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra and its Marrowstone Music Festival (1960-1988), and music professor at the University of Washington (1948-1985), Mr. Sokol shaped more than four decades of young talent, inspiring generations of students and listeners.
Even in his 90s, his craggy profile and thick, wavy hair made him instantly recognizable to his fans. Mr. Sokol couldn’t shop for groceries or enter a big warehouse store without someone calling out, “Mr. Sokol! Remember me? I was in your violin section back in 1968!”
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The amazing thing was that he really did remember. Famous for learning the name of every player in every year’s fresh reincarnation of the Youth Symphony, Mr. Sokol retained details about a certain youngster’s solo or another’s life problems several decades after the fact. He influenced the lives of thousands of Youth Symphony players, and many thousands more at the University of Washington.
He loved his music and his students. An adored father confessor figure, Mr. Sokol often was called upon for extra-musical advice, which the deeply religious conductor dispensed generously. At the big Capitol Hill house where he lived with his late wife, Agatha, and their 10 children, the Sokols became used to the concept of the magically expanding dinner table as they fed the multitudes who always seemed to congregate.
“I will always think of Vilem as a true ‘Pied Piper’ of music,” said Robin McCabe, his faculty colleague and former director of the UW School of Music. “His warm and engaging personality was simply a magnet, and he reached out to transform thousands of students in his career — he was a much beloved teacher. From the principals to the last stand of every section, every student in the Youth Symphony wanted not only to please Mr. Beethoven or Mr. Dvorak; they wanted to go the extra mile to please Maestro Sokol.”
Mr. Sokol was almost as famous for his repertoire of jokes and anecdotes as for his music making. Sometimes he only was half joking, as when he would announce to an out-of-tune second violin section that he was surely going straight to heaven upon his death, because he was enduring purgatory at the moment.
“He may have claimed he was in purgatory when we played out of tune in rehearsals,” said Terry Ewell, who went on to become principal bassoon of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, “but in concerts, he was in heaven. And so were we.”
Several years ago, Mr. Sokol explained his methods: “I’m very tough on them, but they know why. I tell my students, ‘Do you know why I want you to play so well? Because I love you.’ “
Many Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra graduates now play in the Seattle Symphony and the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra; others have gone on to careers in such orchestras as the Orchestre de Paris, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Teatro alla Scala, the Boston Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Famous musical figures lauded Mr. Sokol’s efforts: the late composer William Schuman called his orchestra “a superb music-making organization that needs apologize to none in the technical and musical standard of its performances,” and late composer Alan Hovhaness described it as “a miracle everybody should know about and support with pride.”
Mr. Sokol’s work ethic and family values were instilled by his parents, who left their Bohemian homeland in Czechoslovakia in 1911 and settled on a farm in Pennsylvania. He spent his youth helping his bricklayer father load and unload bricks from railroad cars. When he was 10, young Vilem (nicknamed “Bill”) was taken to hear Fritz Kreisler, the famous violinist; he began his own violin lessons soon thereafter, later switching to the viola.
After schooling at the Oberlin Conservatory, the Juilliard School and the Prague Conservatory, Mr. Sokol served four years in the Air Force during World War II. Before coming to the University of Washington in 1948, he taught in Georgia, Kentucky and Kansas City. In 1945 he married Agatha Hoeschele, who was his staunchest supporter.
Mr. Sokol was concerned about all elements of society, not just the music scene. On Thursday mornings, he would regularly pick up bread, fruit and vegetables at area supermarkets to deliver to the needy. He gave freely of his time to students who couldn’t afford lessons, remembering the sacrifice his parents had made during the Depression years to give him music instruction.
A lifelong believer in fitness, Mr. Sokol swam regularly and did calisthenics. He also kept his mind active and was a voracious reader, preferring musical biographies and the works of Shakespeare — and the cartoons of his former Youth Symphony player David Horsey.
A special Youth Symphony reunion concert in 2003 of his former players reunited Mr. Sokol with hundreds of grown-up student musicians, gathered to perform again under his direction. One of them, KING-FM program director Bryan Lowe, said later: “He always treated me like a long-lost son, just as though I was such a special person in his life. At the rehearsal, as he scanned that huge reunion orchestra, I could see that he felt that way about all of us, hundreds of men and women. Some of them were great musicians scattered through the best orchestras in the world, and he was proud of them. But I know he felt as much for those who became parents, lawyers or bus drivers. Such love and caring. What a gift to all of us.”
At his 90th birthday party in May of 2005, Mr. Sokol reminisced with friends, fans and former students about the great works of music he had brought to life over the years.
“It is such a privilege,” he said, “to live a life in music and to bring music to young people.”
Mr. Sokol is survived by his 10 children, all musical: Mark Sokol of Sebastopol, Calif. (violin); Damian Sokol of Arrowsic, Maine (cello and piano); Anne Sokol Philpott of Indianapolis (violin, viola and piano); Paula Elliott of Ann Arbor, Mich.(violin); Angela Russell of Edmonds (cello); Rebecca Duncan of Shoreline (violin); Sister Claire Sokol of Reno (cello); Mary Brown of Vancouver, B.C. (violin); Jennifer Sokol of Kenmore (violin); and John Sokol of Sarasota, Fla. (piano).
A funeral mass has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday in St. James Cathedral, 804 Ninth Ave., Seattle. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in Mr. Sokol’s memory be made to St. James Cathedral Music Program at the above address, or to the Carmelite Monastery, 1950 La Fond Drive, Reno, Nevada 89509.