Legendary CSO Leader Dies
Musicians remember Holocaust survivor and Highland Park resident Victor Aitay, who performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for more than 50 years. He died last week, at age 91.
"We have lost a legend," begins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's obituary for Victor Aitay, the Highland Park resident and former CSO concertmaster who died last Tuesday. He was 91.
Born in Budapest in 1921, Aitay didn't waste any time before jumping into musical training at age 7 when he entered the Franz Liszt Royal Academy, according to the CSO. After receiving an artist's diploma, Aitay became concertmaster of the Hungarian Royal Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra. He also organized the Aitay String Quartet, with which he toured Europe.
Though he lost much of his family in the Holocaust, Aitay was one of tens of thousands of Jews who survived because of the efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, according to a 2001 Chicago Tribune story. His wife survived Auschwitz, but lost her entire family.
"My wife still has terrible nightmares about her experience (at Auschwitz). The fear that comes from seeing people you know dying before your eyes — you cannot forget that," Aitay told the Tribune. "I was one of the lucky ones. God was good to us."
Aitay emigrated to the United States with his wife, Eva Vera Kellner, in 1946. Soon after, the musician joined the Pittsburgh Symphony. It wasn't long before he was performing in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he remained until joining the CSO in 1954.
"Victor brought a great style and panache to his orchestral leadership that was very effective and very much his own," former CSO concertmaster Samuel Magad told the Tribune. Magad shared the title and first stand with Aitay for 18 years. "When you were playing alongside him, you couldn't help but fall in line with him. He had something no one else had."
Aitay lived in Highland Park for decades, much of that time in walking distance of Ravinia Festival, according to the Sun-Times. In an interview with Pioneer Press, Aitay recalled seeing Igor Stravinsky perform at the renowned music venue.
"He was in his 80s, but when he began to conduct, he lost 20 years," Aitay said about Stravinsky.
In addition to his work for the CSO, Aitay also conducted the Lake Forest Symphony from 1967 to 1988. Aitay was awarded an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from Lake Forest College, the CSO reports.
"He believed passionately in connecting with young people,” violinist Alan Heatherington of Libertyville, told Pioneer Press. Heatherington is the current music director and conductor of that orchestra, “We’d do three concerts in one day, with bus loads of children filling up every performance.”
Conductor James Conlon dedicated the July 25 Ravinia concert featuring violinist Joshua Bell to Aitay's memory. He is survived by his daughter, Ava Aitay-Murray, and his granddaughter, Ashley Murray.