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Originally published August 1, 2013 at 2:09 PM | Page modified August 2, 2013 at 7:51 AM

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Acclaimed Seattle musician Toby Saks dies

Cellist Toby Saks, a founder of the Seattle Chamber Music Society who led the group’s popular festivals for years and who was the third woman ever to play with the New York Philharmonic, died Aug. 1, 2013, of a fast-spreading cancer.

Special to The Seattle Times

Toby Saks, founder of the Seattle Chamber Music Society and an acclaimed cellist, died early on Thursday (Aug. 1) — sending waves of shock and grief around the world as music lovers got the news. She was 71 when she lost a short battle with fast-moving pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis she met with bravery and calm.

“Death has never scared me,” she reflected in mid-July, a few weeks after the diagnosis.

“I’ve never been afraid of it. I think about what I’ve done in my life: starting my career as a cellist, achieving a fair amount of success, having two great kids, coming to the University of Washington, starting the Festival, meeting Marty (Dr. Martin Greene, her husband of 25 years) ... it’s been wonderful. I’ve had the joy of grandchildren — and the joy of handing over the Festival to (current artistic director) Jimmy Ehnes; it’s like my other soul took over. He is so divine.”

Only weeks before her diagnosis, Ms. Saks had been lifting 50-pound weights in the gym in what she termed “monster workouts” and feeling fit, though a little tired. After some persistent abdominal problems, however, Greene urged her to get a checkup. Scans revealed that the unsuspected cancer had already metastasized. The devastating diagnosis was initially kept quiet from all but immediate family and close friends; Ms. Saks decided to forgo medical treatment that might have temporarily prolonged her life but ruined its quality. Her beloved festival was under way, and she wanted to enjoy it: “Being with people in the festival and hearing the music gives me such pleasure,” she explained.

In her last weeks, friends, colleagues, and the musicians of the Seattle Chamber Music Society gathered in her home, where the Festival players all rehearsed, ate, and socialized.

Ms. Saks’ road to Seattle was an unusual one. A New Yorker who began on the piano and switched to the cello at age 9, she became a student of the great cellist Leonard Rose at Juilliard. She rose quickly to prominence at the Pablo Casals Competition and the Tchaikovsky Competition and toured as a soloist, but she disliked traveling. She married and had two children (Claire and Mischa Berlinski), and won a coveted spot in the New York Philharmonic as the third woman member of that orchestra (1971-76). Spending a lifetime in the orchestra, however, did not appeal.

In 1976, Rose heard from his old friend, the noted UW cellist Eva Heinitz, that she planned to retire, and Ms. Saks applied for her position. Ms. Saks found a congenial milieu in the faculty and the students whom she loved to teach. She even enjoyed teaching the introductory courses for non-majors, because she got to inspire in them a love of music that might not have flourished otherwise.

Six years after her arrival in Seattle, Ms. Saks and some fellow music lovers founded the Seattle Chamber Music Society, a small-scale enterprise that blossomed into an annual summer/winter festival. She served as artistic director for 30 years, and after passing over the leadership to violinist Ehnes, she served two more years as associate artistic director. She presented more than 450 concerts with over 300 musicians in the Lakeside School, Overlake School, and Benaroya Hall.

Twenty-five years ago, she married Greene, whom she met through a childhood friend who had become one of his medical partners. Their house in Madison Park became “Command Central” of the Festival every summer, with all the musicians given a key so that they could hang out and eat and relax there. When Ehnes succeeded her as director in 2012, the house remained the gathering place.

“I feel amazingly lucky to have known Toby so well, as a musician and, more importantly, as a beloved friend,” Ehnes said. “I have learned more from her than I could ever describe, and am tremendously grateful to have been given the stewardship over her incredible legacy at the Seattle Chamber Music Society. Everything we do at SCMS has been, and will be, a tribute to Toby.”

As family members and friends gathered after Ms. Saks’ diagnosis, there was disbelief and dismay in the air. Daughter Claire Berlinski arrived from Turkey; son Mischa from the Ivory Coast. They both talked about their mother as “a great mom, stepmom, and grandmother — so devoted and loving.” Despite early music lessons for them both (“We were profoundly encouraged,” Claire remembers), neither turned out musical, but both are gifted and respected writers (so is their father, David Berlinski). Claire is the author of “There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters,” and “Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s crisis is America’s, Too,” as well as two spy novels: “Loose Lips” and “Lion Eyes.”

Mischa Berlinski’s prizewinning novel “Fieldwork” was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award, and it was praised in The New York Review of Books by fellow author Hilary Mantel. One reason for the siblings’ literary successes, Mischa says, is that their mother “really encouraged us to read, and we read a lot as kids.”

“She also encouraged us to be independent,” said Claire, “and I think she was often horrified by what we were doing — she would have loved for us to stay nearer to home — but she never said so.”

Devoted to Mischa’s son Leonardo, Ms. Saks made several trips to Haiti and Africa to visit him and his parents. As the family gathered around her bedside in her last weeks, the grandmother and grandson snuggled up to watch kids’ TV shows (more accurately, Leo watched the TV, and Ms. Saks watched him).

How do you measure the value of a life that has meant so much to so many? Beyond the family and friends, there were decades of UW students who learned the foreign language of music from her, as well as her students who honed their cello skills with her experience. There were the many musicians who rehearsed and performed with her, at the UW and at the beloved festival she founded. There are the grateful audience members who heard her, and the musicians she invited from all over the world, perform classics and new works from the chamber music repertoire. All those legacies continue, in the festival she loved and the students she adored.

Her longtime Festival administrative director Connie Cooper, with whom Ms. Saks worked closely for more than 17 years, said: “Toby and I have had a long and lovely relationship — personally and professionally. We have great respect for each other, and what we each have brought to SCMS. Toby made the organization’s artistic director transition to James Ehnes absolutely seamless, a rarity in this business. I am forever grateful for my association with Toby, and the beautiful music I have been privileged to present, thanks to her.”

In addition to her husband, two children, and grandson, Toby Saks is survived by her brother, Jay David Saks, and wife Linda of Ridgefield, Conn., and their children Jeremy Saks, Greg Saks, and Jeremy’s wife, Ying Ying Li, of New York City; daughter-in-law Cristina Iampieri of Borrano, Italy; stepchildren Jonathan and Catherine Greene and children Ariel and Eitan; Richard and Beth Greene and children Jacob and Lila, all of Seattle; and the late Laura Greene’s daughter Emma Kisselev, and her father Dmitri and adoptive mother Alesya Kisselev of Portland, Ore., and State College, Penn.

A graveside service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 4) at Evergreen Washelli at Abbey View Memorial Park, 3601 Alaska Road, Brier. A memorial service will be announced later. Gifts in her memory may be made to the Seattle Chamber Music Society, 10 Harrison St., Suite 306, Seattle, WA 98109-4509, to Swedish Medical Center Foundation, or a charity of the donor’s choice.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@aol.com


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