Andor Toth, founder of Stanford String Quartet, is dead at 81
Professor emeritus of music had multifaceted career as conductor, violinist, teacher
Andor Toth, a professor emeritus of music who sprinted to violin classes as a child to escape neighborhood bullies and ended up flying around the world to play violin in solo recitals, quartets and orchestras, died of a stroke in Los Angeles on Nov. 28. He was 81.
A memorial service was held Dec. 16 on San Juan Island, Wash., where Toth had moved with his wife in 1990.
Toth was the son of Hungarian immigrants—a master shoemaker and a hotel maid—who had met in New York City. He began taking violin lessons when he was 8 years old at a neighborhood music school.
"In the neighborhood of the kind that I lived in, to have a violin case, to wear knickers and to have to go to practice every day after school marked you as a person who should learn how to run very fast," he said in a 1988 interview with the Stanford News Service. "So I was a great runner, even with flat feet."
On the recommendation of his junior high school teacher, Toth auditioned for admission to the newly established High School of Music and Art.
"I saw hundreds of students in music and hundreds of students in fine arts, all in the same place," he recalled. "For the first time, I felt normal. It was normal to walk around with a violin case."
While attending the Juilliard Graduate School, Toth fell in love with Louise Rose, a voice student. They married and raised three sons. After graduating from Juilliard, he joined the NBC Symphony for a year, playing under Arturo Toscanini in 1943.
After the U.S. Army rejected Toth because of his flat feet, he volunteered for a civilian job in Europe. Assigned to follow the First Army through France and Germany, he played music to seriously injured soldiers in tent hospitals who were waiting to be airlifted to better medical facilities. He later described the assignment as one of his "greatest experiences."
Toth's music career, which spanned more than six decades, was multi-faceted. As a solo violinist, he played with symphony orchestras in Cleveland, Houston and Los Angeles, and gave recitals in Europe, South America and the United States.
He played in several chamber music ensembles that traveled all over the world giving concerts, including the Alma Trio, the New Hungarian Quartet and the Stanford String Quartet.
Toth, who also studied conducting, directed symphonies in Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles and Houston.
In 1960, when he served as a guest conductor for West Side Story on Broadway, he said it was a thrill for a classical musician to play to sold-out audiences, "to people who are dying to see what you do."
Toth's teaching career began in 1955 at Oberlin College, where he was hired as a professor of violin and chamber music.
Stephen Harrison, a cellist and senior lecturer in cello and chamber music at Stanford, met Toth while he was a student at Oberlin.
"His chamber music coaching at Oberlin and at the Taos Chamber Music School were remarkable, and the musical values he believed in will stay with me for life," Harrison said. "His uncanny rhythmic sense was a huge influence on me, and his interpretation of works by Mozart fostered my love for that composer during my college years, when all of us seemed to live and die with Brahms. As a student I was also deeply affected by his interpretations of Bartók."
He said Toth's violin sound was "old-school without being old-fashioned."
"He had great personality and sweetness in his playing, and an energetic virtuosity that leapt off the stage," said Harrison, who later played with Toth in the Stanford String Quartet, an ensemble of professional musicians Toth founded in 1983.
From 1955 to 1978, Toth taught violin, created ensembles and served as director of orchestras and operas at colleges and universities in California, Colorado, Ohio and Texas.
He arrived at Stanford in the summer of 1978, hired to conduct the Stanford Symphony, Chamber Orchestra and Opera Workshop, and to teach conducting to doctoral candidates.
Toth retired from Stanford in 1989.
In a recent story in San Francisco Classical Voice, Charles Barber, who studied conducting under Toth at Stanford, described him as a "deeply generous mentor" who shared the podium, as well as opportunities to produce CDs, attend rehearsals, study scores and house-sit at his beautiful home in Menlo Park.
"He was a deeply emotional man," Barber wrote. "In our five years I often saw him flare with frustration, weep with compassion and shake with laughter. His wife, the soprano Louise Rose, was an anchor and a kite to him, and his career would have been incoherent without her."
Toth toured Europe in 1993, playing first violin with the Takács String Quartet.
After moving to San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington, Toth founded Chamber Music San Juans, which presented concerts with performers from the Pacific Northwest and many major musical centers in the United States and Canada. Toth retired as director in 2005, following the death of his wife, to whom he had been married 58 years.
Toth was also preceded in death by his son Andor Toth Jr., an accomplished cellist, who died in 2002. He is survived by sons Thomas Toth of Lynnsburg, Wash.; Christopher Toth of Running Springs, Calif.; and two grandchildren.