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Sheldon Rotenberg; BSO violinist saw music history up close

Sheldon Rotenberg played violin with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for more than four decades.

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Sheldon Rotenberg played violin with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for more than four decades.

Sheldon Rotenberg, speaking with the Globe in February, expressed a sense of undimmed wonder at the life he had led. A violinist who played in the Boston Symphony Orchestra under five music directors over the course of 43 years, he began his tenure under the revered Serge Koussevitzky, and was one of the last members of Koussevitzky’s BSO to retire, in 1991.

“I would have played in the Boston Symphony Orchestra for nothing, for the joy of being there,” Mr. Rotenberg said. “But to be paid well to do what you love is heaven beyond belief.”

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Mr. Rotenberg, whose health had been failing, died in his home in Brookline June 23. He was 95.

Joining the BSO in 1948, during the final season of Koussevitzky’s tenure, he also played under Charles Munch, Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg, and Seiji Ozawa.

Born in Attleboro, Mr. Rotenberg began playing violin at age 5, and by 10 was studying with violinist Felix Winternitz, a friend of the renowned violinist Fritz Kreisler, from Vienna.

Mr. Rotenberg later attended what was then Tufts College, majoring in psychology with a minor in music. He left campus for Symphony Hall every Friday afternoon, paying 50 cents for a ticket to catch Koussevitzky conducting the BSO.

In 1940, Mr. Rotenberg drove to Lenox to enter the inaugural class of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Founded by Koussevitzky with the notion that the best musicians in the world should serve on its faculty, the Music Center from its first summers boasted a starry roster of teachers.

His first year, Mr. Rotenberg received string quartet coaching from the composer and violist Paul Hindemith. The following summer, his coach was the legendary cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

Koussevitzky also had a gift for attracting the stars of the future. Mr. Rotenberg’s fellow classmates included Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss, and one young tenor who, according to Mr. Rotenberg, liked to walk down to the nearby beach, bare his chest, and launch high notes that sailed clear across the lake to Stockbridge. His name was Mario Lanza.

After his student years at Tanglewood, Mr. Rotenberg joined the Army and, because he spoke French and German, was chosen for military intelligence. Immediately after the war, Mr. Rotenberg recalled, he was sent to Berlin to serve as the city’s chief postal censor, overseeing a staff of 500 German-speakers who worked within the city’s stream of daily mail, hoping to identify the location of senior Nazi officials in hiding.

During his time in Berlin, Mr. Rotenberg befriended a Soviet officer who, like him, was of Jewish descent, and the two of them participated in one of the first Jewish prayer services to take place in the city since before the war.

By 1946, Mr. Rotenberg decided it was time to return to music. He moved to Paris and resumed studying violin, only to hear from a Boston friend that the BSO would be auditioning violinists at Tanglewood in the summer of 1947. Mr. Rotenberg returned to the United States, fully aware of the moment’s significance.

“You know those 10 minutes of playing will change your whole life,” he told the Globe. “I was either going to be a taxicab driver or play in the Boston Symphony.”

An esteemed BSO woodwind player dropped by Mr. Rotenberg’s practice room at New England Conservatory and offered him advice on handling nerves during the audition.

“He said, ‘Just imagine Koussevitzky having a shower like an ordinary person. He doesn’t have a cape on. He’s just a person. Just think, we’re man-to-man, we’re equal people, and you won’t be frightened.’ That really helped me.”

He won the position and began his long tenure with the orchestra, switching in 1952 from the second to the first violin section. After retiring some four decades later, he still vividly recalled highlights from the orchestra’s historic 1956 tour to the Soviet Union under Munch and Pierre Monteux. But he reserved his highest praise for Koussevitzky, citing his “utter devotion and love only to the BSO” — guest conducting was rare in those days — and his tough-minded perfectionism.

“Koussevitzky’s god was beauty of sound,” Mr. Rotenberg told the Globe, “and he would yell at us, ‘You are young people, I can’t believe you play with no love. Your playing is ice cold!’ So we’d play and play until he got the warmth that he wanted.”

In summer 1949 at Tanglewood, by a large spruce, Mr. Rotenberg met his future wife, Hilde Sussmann, an art student and Holocaust survivor from Munich. They were married more than 62 years.

Prior to joining the BSO, Mr. Rotenberg played for a season in the Indianapolis Symphony and was concertmaster of the Massachusetts National Youth Administration Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Fiedler. From 1948 to 1952, he was a member of the Boston String Quartet.

In addition to his wife, he leaves a son, David of Newton; a daughter, Steffi R. Samman of Carlisle; a sister, Tilda Kessler of Providence; and four grandchildren.

Services will be private.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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