STOCKBRIDGE — Joseph Silverstein, former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and internationally renowned violin soloist, chamber player and conductor, died Saturday from complications following a heart attack.
Stricken while attending the telecast opera "Lulu" at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington Saturday afternoon, Silverstein died that night in Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. He was 83 and lived in Stockbridge at 17 Interlaken Crossroad.
Silverstein was the leader of the BSO's violin section — and thus de facto leader of the orchestra's response to the conductor — from to 1962 to 1983. He left to become director of the Utah Symphony, a position he held for the next 15 years.
While at the BSO, he founded and headed the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, served as assistant conductor and spent many years as chairman of the Tanglewood Music Center faculty. After leaving for Utah, he returned summers to teach at Tanglewood. Since 1993, he was a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York.
Former BSO director Erich Leinsdorf, who promoted Silverstein from third-row BSO violinist to the concertmaster's chair, said that among 10 violinists who auditioned for the job, Silverstein "won hands down — a difficult stance for a violin player — to the displeasure of a few important musical figures in New York." The appointment, Leinsdorf said, "was very helpful to me musically."
Conductor Andre Previn once called Silverstein the world's greatest concertmaster: "[It's] a fact, like 'Look! It's summer,' " he said. Other musicians agreed.
Ronald Feldman, director of the Berkshire Symphony, who as a BSO cellist from 1967 to 2001 worked with Silverstein, recalled him as "a terrific concertmaster. He had it all, flawless technique, impeccable musicianship and strong leadership skills. The players had great respect for his playing. He was a powerful presence in the orchestra."
Feldman added: "He had the attention of the management and the trustees and as a result was very influential in many artistic decisions. I always marveled at his amazing listening skills the few times I had the good fortune to play chamber music with him. He was a rare talent."
Known to friends and fellow musicians as "Joey," Silverstein had the gift of combining passion and elegance in his playing. Yet he often said well-trained younger musicians, hundreds of whom he taught at Tanglewood, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and elsewhere around the country, could play rings around him.
Silverstein had played 10 seasons under BSO director Seiji Ozawa when he struck out on his own. Of his decision to move on to Utah and do more solo work, he said the opportunities he had to conduct and be a soloist had multiplied beyond the demands on him and exceeded his expectations of remaining a concertmaster:
"Perhaps it's a backward way of making a career because, as you know, in this country once you have established yourself as a certain kind of something, it's very difficult to gain acceptance or credibility as something else."
Born in Detroit, Silverstein trained at the Curtis Institute, where his teachers included the celebrated Josef Gingold, Mischa Mischakoff and Efrem Zimbalist. He won major awards at the 1959 Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels the Walter W. Naumburg competition in New York in 1960. After Curtis, he played three seasons with the Houston Symphony and one season each with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Denver Symphony.
He joined the BSO in 1955 and, in addition to his concertmaster's role, became assistant conductor in 1971. At Leinsdorf's behest, he founded the Chamber Players in 1964. He conducted the BSO more than 100 times in the United States, Canada and abroad and regularly soloed with the orchestra.
Silverstein served as conductor or artistic advisor of many other orchestras and, over the years, taught at Yale, the New England Conservatory and Boston University in addition to Tanglewood and the Curtis. He held honorary degrees from Tufts University, Boston College, Rhode Island University and the New England Conservatory.
In the Berkshires, Silverstein appeared several times as a guest artist with the Berkshire Bach Society. He was a prized raconteur, regaling Berkshire audiences with anecdotes about playing under various conductors. He wintered in Sarasota, Fla., where he was active in the city's musical life.
Silverstein is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Adrienne; three children, Bunny, Deborah and Marc; and four grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.