When Joseph Silverstein first auditioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s violin section, someone had to call the librarian for help. More music was needed in order to find something for Mr. Silverstein to sight-read. While he was only 30 at the time, he had already played everything in the audition file. He got the job.
About a year later, when he was sitting as last-chair violinist, the formidable music director Charles Munch summoned Mr. Silverstein to a private meeting. “ ‘You must play with the orchestra,’ [Munch] said in his gruff way,” Mr. Silverstein recounted in an oral history project about his life.
“Yes, I agreed. I did play with the orchestra.”
“No, no. You must be a soloist.”
Mr. Silverstein accepted the conductor’s invitation. It would be the first of many.
Renowned for his warm honeyed tone, his impeccably urbane style of playing, and his sophisticated sense of musical culture, Mr. Silverstein served as the BSO concertmaster for 22 years, as its assistant conductor from 1971 to 1984, and generally as one of the very brightest stars in the city’s musical firmament. The conductor Andre Previn succinctly summarized a verdict shared by many when he told The New Yorker magazine: “Joseph Silverstein is the greatest concertmaster in the world. That’s not an opinion. That’s a fact.”
Mr. Silverstein, who was also the music director of the Utah Symphony from 1983 to 1998 and a committed teacher, died of a heart attack Saturday night in Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. He was 83.
“Joseph (or Joey as we all addressed him) Silverstein was one of the most important figures in the history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” BSO managing director Mark Volpe said in a statement Sunday.
The distinguished conductor Kurt Masur told the Globe that Mr. Silverstein’s “leadership was for generations an unforgettable example of a great period of our musical life.”
Mr. Silverstein conducted the BSO in more than 100 performances. He held honorary degrees from seven schools and made many recordings with the BSO, the Utah Symphony, and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, which he directed from its founding until his departure from the orchestra. He also served on the Tanglewood Music Center faculty.
“He was a great leader,” recalled BSO principal cellist Jules Eskin. “He didn’t talk a lot. He just was there, and he was helpful to the conductors. And his solos were phenomenal.”
Mr. Silverstein taught at many music schools in Boston and far beyond, and his students populate leading orchestras around the country. Violinist Sheila Fiekowsky, who studied with him before joining the BSO, observed that when Mr. Silverstein was sitting in the concertmaster’s chair — located just to the conductor’s immediate left — his mere presence could elevate the playing of his colleagues. “It influenced the way you played your instrument every minute you were on that stage,” she said. “He had an elegance about his playing, which permeated the entire string section. Maybe the entire orchestra.”
Speaking to the Globe in 1982, Mr. Silverstein downplayed his role as an active leader. “I think the term role model is much more applicable to describing my duties,” he said. “I follow what the conductor wants more enthusiastically than anyone else and in that way try to lead my colleagues in the act of following.”
Mr. Silverstein was born in Detroit and began his lessons with his father, who was a music teacher in the public schools.
‘Joseph Silverstein is the greatest concertmaster in the world. That’s not an opinion. That’s a fact.’Andre Previn, conductor, quoted in The New Yorker magazine
While showing great promise and arriving at the Curtis Institute of Music at the age of 12, Mr. Silverstein did not aspire to the life of a full-time traveling violin soloist. Two of his primary teachers — Josef Gingold and Mischa Mischakoff — were major concertmasters who had held the top chair at the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell and the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini, respectively. This made a deep impression.
“I remember him from our student days,” said former BSO principal violist Burton Fine, who also studied at Curtis. “When people would stand around noodling Paganini concertos in the corner, he would be noodling the [concertmaster] solos from ‘Ein Heldenleben.’ ”
Before joining the BSO, Mr. Silverstein played in the Houston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Denver Symphony. In 1960, Mr. Silverstein won the prestigious Naumburg Award, and he assumed the BSO concertmaster position in 1962. While in Boston, he also earned a large following through his performances as a soloist with many local ensembles, from the Civic Symphony to Banchetto Musicale — the predecessor of Boston Baroque. He also earned the respect of local composers, as was evidenced by the outpouring of tributes occasioned by his departure in 1984.
“I knew I could expect superlative playing from Joey,” the composer Arthur Burger said at the time, “but I was not prepared for the thoroughness with which he was aware of what was going on in every other instrument at every moment.”
Composer John Harbison told the Globe that Mr. Silverstein’s “performances not only brought my piece into the world alive and healthy, they enlarged my hopes and aspirations as a composer, and I’ll always remember every measure.”
Prominent performers outside of the BSO also held him in the highest regard. “Our era of specialization has created tight little islands — of soul as well as function. Joey Silverstein is a living, breathing, therapeutic anachronism,” pianist Russell Sherman said for the 1984 tributes, adding: “His music, in its reach and subtlety, has not only inspired; it has healed.”
Still, at the time of Mr. Silverstein’s departure from the BSO, perhaps the deepest tribute came from within his own profession. “The end of an era is here, not just in Boston, but in the history of the symphony orchestra,” Rafael Druian, former concertmaster of both the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, told the Globe.
“Joseph Silverstein,” he continued, “was the last concertmaster in this country to embody the historic ideal of the role — not just a first-class violinist who could lead his section, but a person whose musicianship and knowledge a serious conductor could rely on, a person who was sufficiently prepared to take over conducting any concert himself. More than that . . . he served as the musical conscience of the orchestra, someone whose mission was to serve the interests of the composer.”
Mr. Silverstein leaves his wife, the former Adrienne Shufro of West Stockbridge, whom he married in 1954; two daughters, Bunny of Brookline and Deborah of New York City; a son, Marc of Chicago; and four grandchildren.
A private service will be held and his family will announce a public memorial in the spring.
Mr. Silverstein’s appetite for music remained undiminished, even in his final years. He attended a BSO performance the day before he died, and attended a Metropolitan Opera simulcast on the day of his death.
In recent months, Mr. Silverstein had embarked on a series of interviews about his life with the writer Joel Segel. On the subject of practicing at age 83, the violinist said: “I get up in the morning, and I know I have to open that box and that thing is going to look up at me and say, ‘Are you going to try again today?’ And I’m going to practice. That’s a commitment that I love.”Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.