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Originally published October 15, 2013 at 9:30 AM | Page modified October 15, 2013 at 9:29 PM

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Musical, moving memorial for chamber-music champion Saks

Dozens of musicians from around the country gathered in Benaroya Hall on Monday to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the late Toby Saks: cellist, longtime teacher at the University of Washington and founding director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.

Seattle Times arts writer

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The memories were in the music as much as the words.

At the celebration of Toby Saks’ life at Benaroya Hall on Monday, pieces by Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninov and half-dozen other composers were played by musicians who flew into Seattle from all across the country to pay homage to Saks. The event, originally planned to last 90 minutes, stretched into two-plus hours.

The main floor of the hall was filled to near-capacity, and many attending wore “I’m Here for Toby” buttons that featured a photograph of Saks serenely smiling.

Saks, who died in August, was the founder of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, which she led for 30 years before turning it over to violinist James Ehnes two years ago. Ehnes programmed much of the memorial, and while the music tended toward the melancholy or the elegantly pensive, the speakers’ remarks focused on Saks’ energy, her talents as a cellist and a teacher, her passion for chamber music and her way of making all her colleagues feel they were part of her family

As her husband, Dr. Martin L. Greene noted, this was “a celebration of life. It’s not about mourning.”

Seattle Symphony conductor laureate Gerard Schwarz, after leading a string orchestra through a movement from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, recalled how he was knocked out by Saks’ own cello playing when they both teenagers at New York’s High School of Performing Arts. He cited her early musical triumphs (she was first-prize winner at the 1961 International Pablo Casals Competition), and acknowledged what it meant when, in 1971, she became the third woman to play with the New York Philharmonic. To get that post as a female, he said, she couldn’t just be good; she had to be better than most of the other players.

Schwarz went on to describe her as “the great leader of chamber music in the Northwest,” and added that the best possible tribute to her would be to ensure that SCMS continues to run the way it did during the 30 years she had charge of it.

Pianist Robin McCabe, Saks’ colleague at the University of Washington, praised Saks’ “feisty vivaciousness” and cited Saks’ innovative course, “The Concert Season,” as one of the lasting legacies of her 37 years at the UW.

Intended more for the general student population than music majors, the course involved School of Music faculty and graduate students demonstrating excerpts of repertoire they were preparing for concert. “To this day,” McCabe said, “many hearts, minds and ears have been changed by the exposure in this class to the possible delights and pleasures of live performance in a concert venue.”

Ehnes called her “my friend and confidante, a source of inspiration and a sounding board for my dreams, aspirations and frustrations. Hundreds of musicians interacted with Toby through the Chamber Music Society, and she touched all of us in very special and important ways.”

His most recent example: composer Lawrence Dillon, commissioned by SCMS to write a piece for this past summer’s festival, was moved, in his shock at the news of her death, to “try to conjure her up in music” in a spare, meditative piece, “Passing Tones,” that was played on Monday.

Saks’ husband, after narrating a slideshow of Saks’ family and musical life over the years, introduced the final music selection of the evening.

“She loved Bach,” he said, “and I thought: What would be better than an orchestra of cellos playing Bach?”

In a fitting send-off, 19 cellists, led by Schwarz, then played Villa-Lobos’ transcription of Prelude No. 8 from “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I.”

Michael Upchurch:

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