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Katims, Milton (1909-2006)
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Milton Katims was a violist and orchestral conductor of world renown. From 1954 to 1976 he was Music Director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. During that time he worked to build the organization from a small local effort to one of the major regional orchestras in the country. The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Milton Katims First Citizen of 1966. He died in 2006 at the age of 96.
A Musical Family
Milton Katims was born June 24, 1909, in Brooklyn, New York. His mother, Caroline Speigel Katims, was born in Austria-Hungary and brought to the United States as an infant. His father, Harry Katimsky, emigrated from Russia at the age of 12. Ellis Island immigration officials shortened Katimsky’s name to Katims upon his entry into the United States. Katims’s family was of modest means but extremely musical. His mother sang and played piano. His brother Herman and sister Frances played piano. His brother Seymour played cello. Milton, who was discovered early on to possess perfect pitch, played the violin. Katims’s mother regularly took her children to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and to Carnegie Hall to attend concerts.
Milton Katims graduated from Columbia University with a degree in psychology in 1929. He began graduate studies at Columbia, including a conducting class with Leon Barzin. While enrolled in this course, Katims, following Barzin’s advice, switched from violin to viola.
A Marriage in Music
In the early 1930s, Katims met cellist Virginia Peterson (1912-2008). A San Francisco native, Peterson had come to New York after a year on scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London. The couple soon eloped and set up housekeeping. Virginia played concerts in New York schools, and in the homes of the famous, and became a member of the Bary Ensemble, a quartet that toured frequently.
Milton worked as the assistant conductor and solo violist for radio station WOR, the Mutual Broadcasting System from 1935 to 1943, and as first violist for the NBC Symphony Orchestra from 1943-1954. The Katims’s son Peter was born in 1941. A daughter, Pamela, followed in 1947.
In 1947, Katims became assistant conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. Also beginning in 1947 he taught at the Julliard School of Music, a position he held until 1954.
Katims worked frequently as a guest conductor with many symphony orchestras around the country. In 1953 he served as guest conductor for three sold-out concerts for the Seattle Symphony.
The Move to Seattle
In 1954 Katims accepted a yearlong contract to lead the Seattle Symphony. The Katims family settled into a rented house in Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood. Virginia Katims scaled back her own performing career to concentrate on building ties in the Seattle community. She worked tirelessly to promote the symphony, lending her name and presence to fundraising efforts, opening her home to donors, educating and recruiting new audiences -- with no salary of her own.
Katims’s reputation and experience were such that he was able to engage the country's best musicians, such as pianist Eugene Istomin, soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, and violinist Isaac Stern, to perform with the Seattle Symphony.
Bringing Music to the Community
Katims’s popularity and programming vision fostered sell-out concerts. As with virtually all performing arts organizations, symphony ticket prices never covered operating expenses. Milton and Virginia Katims worked tirelessly to expand the Seattle Symphony’s donor base, speaking across the city to small groups of potential donors. “The conductor drank coffee and spoke at so many 'Coffee With Katims' neighborhood parties, he must have been coffee-logged and voiceless” (Campbell, p. 97).
One of Katims’s first new programming decisions for the Seattle Symphony was the institution of a Family Concert series. These performances were held in high school auditoriums and other venues that were easy for families to get to. Less formal than a regular symphony concert, they gave young families a chance to enjoy symphonic music together. Ticket prices were kept low via sponsorships from local businesses and the tickets were available in grocery stores, drug stores, and other easily accessed locations. Community volunteers organized many of the details. These concerts built new audiences and ensured the existence of a future pool of symphony fans.
Under Milton Katims’s direction the Seattle Symphony was awarded first federal Title III funds and then funding through the state legislature to fund free concerts for schoolchildren. Taking orchestral music into the schools exposed many children to symphonic music for the first time.
All Things to All People
Milton Katims was instrumental in the renovation of the Seattle Civic Auditorium into the Seattle Center Opera House for the Century 21 Exhibition. On the April 21, 1962, opening night, he conducted the Seattle Symphony in the “World’s Fair Gala.” The Opera House served as the Seattle Symphony’s home until 1998.
Katims was the Seattle Symphony’s 13th Music Director. He described the position as follows: “An orchestra conductor must be all things to all people. It’s just as well I was a psychology major at Columbia. A conductor has to help solve the domestic crises of his musicians, and soothe the sulking patron. He has to be a glad hand Rotarian type, selling his product to people who don’t think they need or want it." In asking financial support from people who disclaimed interest in the orchestra, Katims said he insisted that their duty was still as great as that of the taxpayer who helped support his library whether he reads or not. To a businessman who said he would not contribute on the grounds that he did not attend the concerts, his answer was: "You help the jails. When were you last in jail?" (Campbell, p. 161). This message to all Seattle citizens that the orchestra was theirs, with full rights and obligations, was perhaps Katims’s most important contribution.
In 1964 Milton Katims received the Columbia University Alice M. Ditson Award for conductors. The Ditson Award is the oldest award honoring conductors for their support of American music.
A Northwest Symphony
On June 3, 1965, Katims told state leaders, including Governor Dan Evans, that the next step for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra was to become a truly Northwest Symphony, touring to serve not only Washington but Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, introducing and providing the symphony orchestra experience to underserved communities. Katims told leaders that the Seattle Symphony needed to enlarge its number of musicians, offer those musicians a 48-week season with many more concerts in all categories, and offer fulltime employment to the musicians so that they would stay in Seattle.
He also felt the Symphony needed more support from local businesses and labor unions, to create an endowment, to launch a summer symphonic festival, and to produce more recordings. Katims’s vision for the Seattle Symphony was that it should make a musical difference in the larger community.
Responding to this vision, in 1966 the Ford Foundation awarded the Seattle Symphony a $1,750,000 grant. The first million was a matching grant -- the Symphony had to raise equal funds within five years in order to receive it. The other $750,000 was in the form of outright grants for fundraising and salaries.
Honors and Awards
In 1966, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Milton Katims First Citizen of the Year. Jerold F. Ballaine, president of the Association, stated that in recognizing Katims the Association recognized the role of parallel cultural development in the midst of the region's industrial build-up.
By 1969 Milton Katims was so prominent a feature of the Seattle landscape that he was immortalized on the local telephone directory. In profile, baton raised, Katims’s image led the collage of other Northwest icons. Katims, like most high-level conductors, combined his Music Director position with near-constant touring, guest appearances, and lectures around the world.
In 1970 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded the Seattle Symphony $100,000, which it increased the following year to $150,000. This federal support continued to flow in response to the Seattle Symphony’s growth during Milton Katims’ tenure. The Symphony undertook a long-planned tour of Alaska in 1972.
End of the Katims Era
Despite these successes, Milton Katims’s days with the Seattle Symphony were numbered. Beginning in 1973 there was a groundswell within the symphony’s board of directors to encourage Katims to move on. Katims was offered the title Conductor Emeritus, without the title Musical Director. He refused, instead negotiating a new contract. By the terms of this contract his exit would be more gradual: conducting through 1976 and then assuming the title Musicial Advisor. Katims stated, “It is a meaningless title. No one is going to seek my advice” (The Seattle Times, August 8, 1976). Beyond that, Katims chose not to comment on the split.
Many years later, Milton and Virginia Katims remarked in their memoirs, “After 20 years, years which had flown by so fast because we had been so deeply involved in building an orchestra and promoting the cultural ambience of Seattle, we finally realized that even with the charisma of a Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart as conductor, audiences want change. How could we have been so unaware?” (The Pleasure Was Ours, 397).
Milton Katims’s 22 years at the helm of the Seattle Symphony ended in 1976. Katims left an organization that was deeply embedded in the life of Seattle, supported by frequent grants from local, state, and national sources, and heavily subscribed. Through symphony programs developed on his watch, countless children and adults throughout the region had been introduced to live symphonic music for the first time. And the Seattle Symphony Orchestra had grown in stature to be considered one of the major regional orchestras in the country.
Concurrent with Katims’s departure from the Seattle Symphony, Governor Dan Evans proclaimed Milton Katims “Musical Ambassador for the State of Washington.” Evans' statement read in part, “Milton Katims not only has been an inspirational leader of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra but he has also been an inspiration to the citizens of the entire State of Washington ... he has enriched the lives of thousands of Washingtonians, both young and old ... Mr. Katims and his lovely wife Virginia truly belong to the State of Washington ... it is both fitting and proper that in his future travels around the world conducting major symphony orchestras Milton Katims will represent the state of Washington as its music ambassador” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 16, 1976).
From 1976 to 1984, Milton Katims served as the artistic director of the University of Houston School of Music.
Milton and Virginia Katims returned to Seattle in July 1984 in order to be close to their daughter and grandchildren. In 1986, Katims was honored with the Arturo Toscanini Artistic Achievement Award.
In April 1992, Katims once again raised the baton for the Seattle Symphony, conducting a benefit concert for the orchestra in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair. In May 1997, Katims received the Lifetime Accomplishment in the Arts award from the Seattle Corporate Council for the Arts.
At 95 Milton Katims still played tennis regularly at the Seattle Tennis Club. He died of heart failure on February 27, 2006, at the age of 96.
Milton Katims and Virginia P. Katims, The Pleasure Was Ours (Mill Valley, CA: Vision Books International, 2004); Hans and Thelma Lehmann, Out Of The Cultural Dustbin (Seattle: Crowley Associates, Inc, 1992); Esther W. Campbell, Bagpipes In The Woodwind Section: A History of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and its Women’s Association (Seattle: Seattle Symphony Women’s Organization, 1978); Pacific Northwest Bell-Seattle Telephone Directory, Area Code 206 (Seattle: Pacific Northwest Bell, March 1969); Dorothy Brant Brazier, “Katims and Seattle,” The Seattle Times, July 5, 1964; “Katims Seattle’s Top Citizen,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 7, 1966; Wayne Johnson, “Milton Katims: He Led Cultural Renaissance,” The Seattle Times Magazine, August 8, 1976; Jo Ann Patterson, “Milton Katims,” Puget Soundings, February 1960; Patrick Douglas, “Milton Katims” (Document Number K2420006000), Biographical Resource Center website accessed August 6, 2004 (http://galenet.galegroup.com); “Evans Names Milton Katims State’s ‘Musical Ambassador,’ ” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 16, 1976; “A Lifetime of Music,” Ibid., April 13, 1992; “Maestro Milton Katims Is Back In The Limelight Again,” Ibid., November 9, 1985; Mike Henderson, “The Katims Affair,” Ibid., November 19, 1974; R. M. Campbell, “Vote Is Against Katims,” Ibid., November 16, 1974; “A New Role For Katims,” Ibid., June 26, 1974; Milton Katims, “Don’t Just Sit There!” Ibid., October 13, 1965; “Milton Katims Cleans Up The ‘Dustbin,’” Seattle Post-Intelligencer Northwest Today, September 12, 1965; “Family Concert Is A Musical ‘Way Of Life,’ ” Bellevue American, March 24, 1965; “A Difficult Assignment,” Argus, February 16, 1957; “The Seattle Symphony Negotiates a Difficult Passage,” Argus, July 5, 1974; “What’s Behind The Violent Rhetoric of the Seattle Symphony Board Dispute?” Ibid., December 20, 1974; “Maestro Katims Still Holding Court at 93,” The Seattle Times, June 24, 2002; Regina Hackett, “City’s Arts History Began A New Chapter In ’62,” Ibid., April 29, 2002; Melinda Bargreen, “Happy 95th, Milton Katims: The Pleasure Has Been Ours,” Ibid., June 20, 2004; R.M. Campbell, "Milton Katims: 1909-2006, The Force Behind the Symphony's Success," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 28, 2006, p. E-1; Melinda Bargreen, "Seattle Cellist Virginia Katims Dead at 95," The Seattle Times, January 9, 2008 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com).
Note: This essay was updated on February 28, 2006, and again on January 9, 2008.
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Milton Katims (1909-2006), 1964
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Souvenir Recording of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Milton Katims Conductor (SSO Records, Limited Edition No. 340/400), 1958
Courtesy Peter Blecha archives