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January 17-23, 2007

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Sandor Salgo, noted conductor of San Jose Symphony and Carmel Bach Festival

An Appreciation

By Scott MacClelland


Music director of the Carmel Bach Festival from 1956 to 1991, Sandor Salgo died on Saturday at his home at Stanford, age 97. Salgo's stamp on the Bach Festival was indelible. To this day, festival patrons speak warmly, sometimes nostalgically, about the Salgo years.

The Hungarian-born Salgo did his most important work at the Bach Festival in rehearsals. It was there that he imparted his own, ever-deepening admiration for the festival's namesake and set an example that some patrons today feel is missing, a love of Bach that borders on the spiritual.

The heart of Bach's sacred music is found in the words, Salgo taught, and demonstrated this in his programming of the great St. Matthew and St. John passions, and the Mass in B Minor, rotating them year after year as the festival's principal touchstones.

From the texts, Salgo derived the drama, then put together productions that strove to balance the drama with the emotions they aroused, just as Bach constructed them. In this, Salgo was ahead of his time, especially during the rise of historic performance practice that sometimes left the feeling out. On more than one occasion, his performances in Carmel of the Bach passions literally left his audiences in tears.

But Salgo also had a keen interest in opera, giving himself permission to schedule semistaged productions of Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, and even Beethoven's Fidelio when he was able to attract the right voices.

He had a keen nose for young, upcoming talent, and on several occasions introduced singers locally who went on to international careers. The same could be said for any number of instrumentalists many of whom joined the Bach festival as its reputation under Salgo gained stature.

Salgo's impact in California was huge. He conducted the Marin Symphony for more than three decades, the San Jose Symphony for almost two decades and the Modesto Symphony for nine years.

A violinist, he managed to find himself in the right place and the right time over and over, studying conducting in Europe and America with some of the eminent in the field, not least the man who he claimed had the most important impact on him, George Szell. He taught at Stanford for 24 years, and conducted the orchestra and opera programs there from 1949 until 1974.


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