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Modesto orchestra's ex-maestro Salgo dies

The influential conductor who transformed the Modesto Symphony Orchestra from an amateur group to a professional organization has died.

Sandor Salgo died Saturday at his Stanford home. He was 97.

Known for his elegant Old World manners, depth of knowledge about music and his shock of unruly white hair, he directed the orchestra from 1976 to 1988 and instituted several changes that remain in effect today.

Because of him, the orchestra has auditions, includes highly skilled Bay Area musicians and performs more than six concerts a year. During his tenure, the orchestra's annual budget increased from $41,300 to $380,000. The orchestra now presents 22 concerts a year and has a budget of $2.2 million.

"Salgo was the one who turned it around to a fine orchestra that we can really be proud of," said Dr. Nicoll Galbraith, who was board president during the maestro's time in Modesto. "I can take people from all over the country to see our symphony and be proud of it."

Mr. Salgo also led the Marin Symphony and the Carmel Bach Festival for more than 30 years, directed the San Jose Symphony for 19 years, and taught for 25 years at Stanford University, where he directed the college's orchestral chamber music and opera programs before retiring in 1974.

He was born in Budapest, Hungary, and graduated from the city's Royal Hungarian Academy of Music, played violin and viola and worked with famed artists, including conductor Arturo Toscanini and composers Zoltán Kodály and Jean Sibelius.

Elizabeth Kidwell, a Modesto Symphony Orchestra violinist who performed under Mr. Salgo's direction, said the conductor told musicians that after he performed the Sibelius violin concerto in Finland, the great composer invited him to his home.

"He had firsthand knowledge of people we read about in history books," Kidwell said.

Mr. Salgo also once played violin duets with Albert Einstein, whom he met during his 1939-1949 tenure as orchestra director of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J.

Stanislaus Arts Council Director Grace Lieberman, who studied under him at Stanford University and sang solos for him at Modesto Symphony Orchestra concerts, said performers were awed by Mr. Salgo.

"They would say, 'The maestro's coming, the maestro's coming.'"

His credentials were so impressive, many wondered how the orchestra lured him to Modesto. Stories differ depending on whom you talk to, but Galbraith said Mr. Salgo was recruited by Galbraith's immediate predecessor as board president, the late Dr. George Feher.

After Mr. Salgo arrived at the Modesto Symphony Orchestra, talented musicians came from all over the region, including current concertmaster Mark Jordan, who also worked with him at the Marin Symphony and Carmel Bach Festival.

"He was a wonderful mentor and wonderful gentleman," Jordan said, adding that the conductor was a fount of knowledge. "I have a lot to be grateful for him for."

Mr. Salgo held the Modesto Symphony Orchestra to high standards, while treating musicians kindly. Bette Belle Smith, an orchestra board member, said he wrote them helpful notes with tips and never raised his accented voice. An impeccable dresser, he was sophisticated, cosmopolitan and unfailingly gracious.

"We jokingly called him the hand kisser because when you met him, he kissed your hand in the old European style," Smith said.

Mr. Salgo inspired the community like few other conductors in the orchestra's 76-year history. Sue Allen, a longtime ticket holder and former development director at the orchestra, said he was tremendously important to the group.

"He got it started on the right road and the right track."

Mr. Salgo is survived by his wife, Priscilla Salgo; daughter, Debra Danove; and two grandsons. The family plans a memorial service, but no date has been set.