Sandor Salgo, a professor emeritus of music, is dead at 97

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Students enjoyed Sandor Salgo’s music-appreciation classes. One of his most popular, on Beethoven, ranked second in enrollment at the university for years—just behind a course in human sexuality. Above, Salgo conducts.

Sandor Salgo, a professor emeritus of music who conducted the opening performance at Dinkelspiel Auditorium 50 years ago, died Jan. 20 at his Stanford home. He was 97.

A private service was held Jan. 22 at Hills of Eternity Memorial Park in Colma.

A native of Hungary, Salgo studied music, including the violin and conducting, in Budapest, Berlin and Dresden. In the 1930s, he played in several orchestras in Hungary and Germany.

He came to the United States for the first time in 1937, playing the violin with the Roth Quartet on a coast-to-coast tour. Later, worried about the rise of fascism in Europe, Salgo wrote to Princeton University—where the quartet had performed—inquiring about positions.

He immigrated to the United States in 1939, after the university offered him a job teaching violin and theory at its Westminster Choir College.

Salgo, who became an American citizen in 1944, also played the glockenspiel in an Army marching band during World War II.

He arrived at Stanford in 1949, accompanied by his wife, Priscilla, whom he had met at Princeton. At Stanford, Salgo taught courses on the literature of the symphony, the concerto and the education of conductors. He also served as the director of opera and orchestras.

On May 23, 1957, he conducted the first musical performance in Dinkelspiel Auditorium: the West Coast premiere of The Ballad of Baby Doe, a romantic opera set in the silver mining days of the Old West.

Alumna Alexandra Hawley, who teaches flute at Stanford, described playing in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra under Salgo in the 1960s as the "highlight of my student life."

"He was very, very warm, and gracious," Hawley said. "He was enthusiastic and sparkling. He always made playing such a joy. He really emphasized the spiritual nature of the music. He would say, 'Oh, my dear, you must play with your heart on the music stand.' He just really wanted us to tap into all the emotional joy or pain that was in the music."

Students also enjoyed Salgo's music-appreciation classes. One of his most popular, on his beloved Beethoven, ranked second in enrollment at the university for years—just behind a course in human sexuality.

"He was very proud of that," recalled Stephen Hinton, professor of music and senior associate dean for the humanities in the School of Humanities and Sciences, who befriended Salgo when he was in his late 80s. "He had a thick Hungarian accent. He had a little twinkle in his eye when he talked about the Beethoven class."

Hinton, who had been collaborating with Salgo on a new performance piece, My Life with Beethoven, said Salgo looked like a conductor straight out of central casting with his full head of wavy silver hair.

"Sandor was a wonderful, old-world gentleman," he said. "You'd go to his house and he'd be wearing an old-fashioned smoking jacket, and he'd give you cocktails with little umbrellas in them. He was very gracious, especially toward women."

Salgo's daughter, Deborah Dranove, described her father as kind, patient and affectionate.

"I was able to spend a lot of time with him because he would often be at home during the day studying scores and preparing for classes," she said. "I would go up in the study and turn pages of these big orchestra scores for him. In the evenings, I would often go to rehearsals with my parents."

The family's first home on campus was an apartment inside a large house. It was later torn down to make way for Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

Salgo marked his retirement in 1974 by conducting four gala performances of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni in Memorial Auditorium.

That same year, Stanford gave him the Dinkelspiel Award for distinctive service to undergraduate education.

Salgo's influence and accomplishments extended well beyond campus. In a memorial published in the online journal San Francisco Classical Voice, founding editor Robert P. Commanday wrote that Salgo had the "longest, strongest, most far-reaching career of any conductor in the Bay Area."

"With the Marin Symphony, at Carmel [the Carmel Bach Festival] and at Stanford, he introduced more works to the Bay Area than any other conductor," Commanday wrote, citing Benjamin Britten's War Requiem and Virgil Thomson's Mother of Us All as examples.

"He developed the Carmel Bach Festival from a local event into a nationally recognized celebration of Bach's music, with three weeks of concerts and recitals, and performances of the cantatas and of one of the Passions or the B Minor Mass each year," Commanday said, adding that the festival also featured "memorable performances" of operas, including Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute.

Salgo served as the festival's music director from 1956 to 1991.

The festival will present a concert in memory of Salgo on July 23 in Stanford's Memorial Church.

Salgo continued to lecture about his favorite topic—classical composers—long after retirement. In 1998, he returned to campus to talk about the great Russian composers, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, in Campbell Recital Hall.

In 2000, the University of North Carolina Press published his 88-page book, Thomas Jefferson: Musician and Violinist, an essay Salgo wrote when he was in his 90s.

During a 1986 interview at his Stanford home, Salgo confessed to being a workaholic, then added: "But what more joy can there be than expressing oneself in the greatest music that has ever been written?"

In addition to his wife, Priscilla, of Stanford and daughter, Deborah Dranove of Highland Park, Ill., Salgo is survived by two grandchildren.