For nearly a quarter-century, Virginia Peterson Katims was the first lady of the Seattle music scene: a gifted cellist, a charming hostess...

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For nearly a quarter-century, Virginia Peterson Katims was the first lady of the Seattle music scene: a gifted cellist, a charming hostess, and the devoted wife of the late Seattle Symphony conductor Milton Katims.

Mrs. Katims died of pneumonia Tuesday morning with a secret known to few outside her immediate circle: For most of her adult life, she gave her birth date as Nov. 15, 1922. It was Nov. 15, all right — but the year was really 1912.

Who but Virginia Katims would have had the chutzpah, as well as the beauty, to pull off a hidden decade, unknown to every source from the Department of Motor Vehicles to “The World Who’s Who of Women”? Who else could have charmed Arturo Toscanini, Isaac Stern, Claudio Arrau and the entire Budapest String Quartet with her unique combination of musical chops and personal charisma?

Born in San Francisco, Mrs. Katims showed early musical aptitude, first on the piano and then on the cello. In her student days, Mrs. Katims also got a job modeling furs at a store that later became I. Magnin.

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Mrs. Katims studied with Sir Ivor James at the Royal College of Music in London, during which time she also met George Bernard Shaw (who later commended her in a note that said he was “pleased to meet an American girl who spoke the King’s English”). Later she studied in New York with noted cellists Alfred Wallenstein and Emanuel Feuermann, and her career gradually took off with orchestral concerts, chamber programs and solo recitals.

As soloist with the Bary Ensemble, she toured for 10 years throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Reviewers called Mrs. Katims “a cellist whose sensuous lustrous tone, fluent, secure technique and imaginative sense of beauty brought illumination to everything she played,” and praised the “zest and temperamental élan” of her playing.

While living in New York, she met, and soon married, Milton Katims, then a rising young violist and conducting protégé of the legendary Toscanini, with whom the couple became close friends.

The marriage of Milton and Virginia was a true partnership in every sense of the word. Mrs. Katims adored “my Maestro,” as she always called him, and was his staunchest supporter in every phase of his career. Whenever there was a new development, a guest-conducting engagement or the appearance of media coverage elsewhere, one of Mrs. Katims’ famous purple envelopes would soon arrive at this writer’s desk, filled with the news and a chatty note about the Maestro’s latest doings.

Music took the couple around the globe — meeting Marc Chagall and Princess Grace at the Menton (France) Festival, hobnobbing with Benny Goodwin and Ravi Shankar, meeting the Shah of Iran in Caracas, and performing in Morocco, Israel, France, England, Lebanon, Finland and Norway. Mrs. Katims, an accomplished writer, sent occasional travel and culture articles to The Seattle Times for publication.

During her husband Milton’s 22-year career as music director of the Seattle Symphony — which was followed by three more years as music adviser — Mrs. Katims worked tirelessly to introduce classical music to young people, to promote the Symphony throughout the community, and to raise money to expand the length of the season and introduce new artists to Seattle. She also appeared in concerts benefiting the orchestra and chaired fundraisers at which she brought the likes of designers Emilio Pucci and Hubert de Givenchy to the party.

Mrs. Katims also found the time to raise two children, Peter and Pamela, and serve as volunteer at University Hospital.

In the mid-1970s, after more than 20 years at the helm of the Seattle Symphony, Milton Katims began to encounter opposition from factions who thought he had been there long enough. Bowing to the inevitable, Mr. Katims left the Seattle Symphony and took an appointment as director of the School of Music at the University of Houston, where the couple stayed for eight years before retiring and returning to Seattle.

The Katimses were fixtures on the local concert scene, even in the later years when getting around was more of a challenge, and the couple — true lovers of the art form — invariably came to the concert hall’s green room afterward to commend the performers personally. As Mrs. Katims exuberantly put it in the conclusion of “The Pleasure Was Ours,” the couple’s 2004 memoir: “Oh, yes — music has always been my heart, my mind, my soul, my very life. Make it part of your life, too!!!”

Mrs. Katims is survived by her son, Peter Katims, of Byron Bay, Australia; daughter Pamela Katims Steele, of Seattle and her husband, Patrick; and grandchildren Michelle Simpson, of Seattle, and Bryan Steele, of San Diego.

The family will host a private celebration of Mrs. Katims’ life. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Katims Fund for Kids, c/o Seattle Symphony; or to the Katims Scholarship at the University of Washington Foundation, University of Washington School of Music.

Melinda Bargreen:

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