By Tim Munro
The first thing that strikes me about Silvian Iticovici is his deep sincerity. Speaking over Zoom, I notice how much care and attention he gives to my questions. He takes time, carefully weighing his thoughts. Always waiting before giving measured, earnest responses.
My conversation with Silvian comes on the eve of his retirement, after more than four decades with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (his final position was as Second Associate Concertmaster Emeritus). He suggests we speak on August 4th, exactly forty-five years since Silvian’s audition for the SLSO.
The day his life changed forever.
Silvian was born in Romania. After studying at Bucharest Conservatory, he began to travel to the West for violin competitions. But the Communist government soon put an end to those ambitions, rejecting his applications for leave. For four years, he was unable to travel abroad.
Frustrated by the restrictions on his movement, he defected to the West. At the recommendation of Yehudi Menuhin, he moved to Amsterdam, to live with Sylvio and Ans Samama-Polak, generous patrons of the arts. The Samama-Polaks’ financial support allowed Silvian to travel for lessons with Menuhin, the Amadeus Quartet’s Norbert Brainin, and Arthur Grumiaux.
It was a time of rootlessness, uncertainty. “My life felt up in the air,” he says. He was struck by “the freedom and sophistication of my hosts and of Amsterdam,” but didn’t feel at home in the West. “I was coming from a country,” he says, “where you were told from A to Z what to do and when to do it. The freedom in the Netherlands—I was overwhelmed.”
An opportunity presented itself for Silvian to study in the United States. He moved to New York to take lessons with the legendary violinist Ivan Galamian, who taught at both the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School.
Galamian was enormously strict, but that strictness suited Silvian. “I adored his teaching,” he says. Being able to rely on tight discipline in America, a society that was free in unfamiliar ways, “was the perfect middle ground.”
After nine months in the United States, Silvian was short of money and short of time on his American visa. He attempted to extend his visa, but was rebuffed. His options: return to the Netherlands, or go home to Romania.
A friend alerted him to an upcoming violin audition. The host: the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The problem: he had just two weeks to prepare. “People thought that I was crazy to do it,” he says with a laugh.
Silvian remembers the repertoire like it was yesterday. He prepared two violin concertos, and excerpts from orchestral works by Prokofiev, Brahms, Schumann, and Bach. Much to his surprise, he won the audition.
Signing the SLSO contract was a moment of tremendous relief. “I didn't know what to do with myself,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, I did not have to worry about going back. I felt like a million dollars.”
At the time, he planned to stay in the SLSO for one year, flying to New York every two weeks for violin lessons. But that year became two, and those two became five. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”
Silvian was impressed with the SLSO from the very first rehearsal. “It was a Tuesday morning, and we were rehearsing Schumann’s Third Symphony. I remember how amazed I was at the quality of every section.”
He felt welcomed by the members of the SLSO. “They were so very warm and helpful,” easing the challenging transition from inexperienced young musician to professional orchestral player.
I ask Silvian for highlights from his tenure. At the time he joined, Music Director Jerzy Semkow was at the helm. “A wonderful musician—very strict,” Silvian says. “There was a Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony that was mentally draining—I felt its impact for days.”
Succeeding Semkow, Leonard Slatkin’s tenure as Music Director made a strong impression. A performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was “a feast, an absolute feast!” Rachmaninoff’s symphonies “were an extraordinary thing.” Prokofiev’s orchestral works: “Nobody does them as well as Leonard.”
He mentions today’s Music Director, Stéphane Denève, being “marvelous” in Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, “terrific” in Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. And Denève’s predecessor, David Robertson, whose performances of Britten’s Peter Grimes “showed the excellent qualities of every section of the SLSO—strings, winds, brass, percussion, chorus.”
Silvian cherishes the SLSO’s relationship with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. He mentions a production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, led by Calvin Simmons, “an exceptionally gifted young conductor.” Simmons—the first African American conductor to work with major orchestras—died soon after, tragically young.
Legendary soloists made an impression. Violinists: Ida Haendel in Sibelius; Isaac Stern, “of course;” Henryk Szeryng, “one of my favorites;” Kyung Wha Chung, “superb” in Dvořák’s concerto; and Nathan Milstein. He mentions cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who arrived late from the airport, jumping into the middle of the Elgar Cello Concerto, “which is something I will remember forever.”
I ask Silvian what he will miss most. He answers without pause. “The music.” What about life after the SLSO? “Can I tell you a secret?” he almost whispers. “I don't know what I want. I never wanted to do anything but practice. I love reading, and I love practicing.”
He has begun to find joy in swimming laps in the pool. “It's like being in a trance. I am almost in a different place—it is close to meditation. It has a very good effect on me.”
At several points in our conversation, Silvian apologizes (unnecessarily, it must be said) for being unclear. “Music is the way I express myself,” he says. “I am not good with words—I’m not a very communicative person. But music gives me an opportunity to express myself.”
Silvian doesn’t spent time looking backwards or forwards. “As much as I can,” he says, “I don't ever dare make plans for future. I have always lived in the present.” Understanding the limitations of this attitude, Silvian is slowly learning to take stock of the past.
I ask him if it pleasurable to think back on his long career. “Yes,” he says. Does he look with pride on his enormous contributions to the SLSO? “Yes, it was good.” Adding, with Silvian-esque humility, “I was okay.”
Watch Silvian's videos from the SLSO's Instrument Playground Online educational series here (make sure to navigate to the "strings" tab).
Tim Munro is the SLSO's Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.