Violinist lets the music play on and on At 89, the orchestra's Jerome Wigler is the oldest musician of any "Big Five" symphony.

Posted: August 09, 2009

His supple hands would be the envy of a violinist of 30.

Which Jerome Wigler was - 59 years ago.

At 89, Wigler is the oldest full-time musician at the Philadelphia Orchestra, and easily the oldest member of any of the nation's "Big Five" symphonies (New York, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, and Philadelphia).

He's been with the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1951, playing for the likes of Arturo Toscanini, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Eugene Ormandy, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Igor Stravinsky. He's even played for Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED AUGUST 13, 2009, FOLLOWS: A story Sunday on the Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Jerome Wigler misnamed the composer of the symphonic suite Scheherezade, which was written by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888. The second-oldest member of the orchestra actually is the bassist Neil Courtney, 76. Also, when Wigler performed with Bla Brtok it was at Sarah Lawrence College, and he played for Sergei Rachmaninoff when the latter guest-conducted the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1942.

As far as anyone knows, he is the orchestra's longest-serving member ever, 57 years and counting, and among the longest-serving players in any orchestra. (Violinist Felix Resnick, who died last year, played for the Detroit Orchestra for 65 years; recently retired clarinetist Stanley Drucker served the New York Philharmonic for 60.)

Wigler, a second violinist and one of 34 violinists in the Philadelphia Orchestra, has played on some of the finest classical recordings the orchestra has made. Solo recordings - of a sonata by Raymond Swing, for example, on Smithsonian Folkways - show a direct, decisive attack and a full, singing approach to melody, much like that of his model, Jascha Heifetz.

His love of lyricism comes through when he's asked what, of all pieces, he'd most like to play: "Scheherezade, by Tchaikovsky. I've loved Tchaikovsky since I was a boy, and I love the melody of Scheherezade."

The Swarthmore resident says he "always had a good technique - "but I think it's getting even better these days." He practices "one to two hours every day," concentrating on Bach unaccompanied violin works - "I love playing Bach; it's excellent for technique" - and reserves his prized 1710 violin by Giuseppe Guarneri for concerts.

With 16 years on the next oldest member of the orchestra - violinist Louis Lanza, 73 - Wigler works to stay sharp. "All these young musicians come in, they're so well trained, so good, and they really go after their parts. Keeping up with them is very difficult, can be a big challenge, but I love to work at it and keep improving. That's why I say my playing is better now. The new musicians coming in have had this great influence on me."

Wigler, just done rehearsing with the orchestra, relaxes in a spartan dressing room at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts and speaks of the musician's life and the life of a child of Russian immigrants, growing up in Detroit. He also speaks of the soldier's life, of a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars.

He still wakes in the night, covered with sweat.

War revisits his dreams and won't let him go.

Part of Wigler is still back there: Normandy, the liberation of Paris, Aachen, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Ardennes, where a mortar sent him to the hospital. He's still there, a medical technician sewing up wounds after the doctors were done, sensitive hands "good with the needles and catgut," as he says.

He's still there, in rooms slick with blood, strewn with "arms and legs all over the place. That doesn't go away. It never leaves you."

Born in 1920, Wigler tried and rejected piano ("all I wanted to do was play baseball") before discovering the violin. He was gifted, uncommonly so. His parents patterned him after the prodigy Heifetz, even dressing him in the sailor suits worn by him and another youngster, Yehudi Menuhin.

One day, he says, a teacher remarked, "Someday you'll probably be playing for the Philadelphia Orchestra." Wigler graduated from the Juilliard School in 1941, and in '42 landed a job with the Minneapolis Symphony, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos.

The next year, he was drafted.

"They didn't want me to be a soldier," Wigler says. "They wanted to save my hands. I'd been interested in doing medicine if I didn't go into music, so they made me a medical technician."

To England, to work with the wounded. "I played a lot for the troops," he says, "but once the fighting got too bad, I had to stop." And then to Omaha Beach, Normandy, four days after the invasion, vicious village-to-village combat, "a total mess, everything that close to breaking down."

He dug trenches before the Battle of the Bulge, even shouldered a gun: "They usually didn't give you guns if you were a medic, but for that one, they made an exception." Fearsome weather and the chaos of war: "You sometimes didn't know where you were for two, three days. The snow saved us, stopped the German tanks in their tracks."

He pores over photos: playing violin in the hedgerows of Normandy; in Paris for the liberation; in the snow of the Bulge, cradling a rifle; standing in hospital pajamas with another wounded man "who died in the Hrtgen Forest."

After the war he returned home "with post-traumatic stress, which I've had ever since." He left the Minneapolis Symphony for New York, where he landed a gig with the ice show at the Center Theatre. He also free-lanced, playing for everyone from Sinatra to the famed NBC Symphony, conducted by Toscanini.

Eventually he became "tired of commercial playing and wanted to play full time with a symphony," he says. So he tried out for the Philadelphia Orchestra and won the audition. "It was thrilling, amazing, and I could still do side work in New York."

He became part of the signature Philadelphia Orchestra sound under Ormandy. "He let you play, and he got a terrific sound out of the orchestra. He was a violinist, and he watched you very closely." Any violinist who missed a passage in the exposition would look up during the recapitulation . . . and see Ormandy watching him closely to see if he got it this time.

Philadelphia and Wigler clicked. He played in the orchestra, moved with his wife to the suburbs, had a family - sons Marc and Paul - and gave lessons and recitals. He joined music and civic organizations, became active in the musicians' union, and, in 1973, cofounded the Delaware County Youth Symphony.

Davyd Booth, violinist and second keyboard player for the orchestra, has known Wigler for 37 years, both as a fellow violinist and as an accompanist for some of Wigler's solo work. "It's remarkable his playing is as good as it is at his age," he says. "When I see what he's able to do, it's amazing. He keeps his playing in great condition with all the solo work he does."

Wigler says that of all the recordings in which he's taken part, his favorite is the Shostakovich Fifth, in 1975 for RCA.

Perhaps surprisingly, Wigler says, "I think the orchestra today is better than it was back before. The standard of playing is higher. Back then, we sounded great, but the caliber of playing was simply not the same."

It's a tough shop: Standards are high, and the greatest music is also sometimes the hardest. Modern works, he says are "sometimes very hard to play" - and he names (and admires) Roger Sessions as a creator of fine but fiendishly hard music. Earlier composers also can pose a test: "Richard Strauss is sometimes incredibly difficult. So is Richard Wagner, because he wasn't necessarily interested in violins, the orchestra, or what musicians could do - he just wrote!"

Asked if there can possibly be any unfinished business after six decades of making music, he makes it clear: He has no plans to retire. He also wants to continue his solo work and his role in music programs for the young.

Wigler wants to extend that teaching in another direction. "I want to teach older people how to play," he says. "They can. They don't know it, but they can. I'd like to teach older people to play Bach. It's such a joy. I want to show them what a joy it is. Playing has been a great joy to me."

Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/jtimpane.

Jerome Wigler on:

Igor Stravinsky: He once guest-conducted the orchestra playing some of his works. He was very nasty, very strict with us. I don't know what it was - he just was never happy with what we were playing.

George Rochberg: A delightful man. I debuted his Paganini Variations at Princeton. A tragic thing happened to him, the death of his son from cancer. It made his music more emotional, more sentimental.

Frank Sinatra: He was terrific. Very professional, very good to the musicians. I remember we were sitting around having pizza one day, and Sinatra was swatting flies away, and there was a big guy at the door. He had a bodyguard wherever he went. He said to me, "Don't ever get famous. People come at you with scissors, they want a piece of your hair, they want to cut off a piece of your coat. It's dangerous."

Wolfgang Sawallisch [music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1993-2003]: The best musician I ever worked with. His knowledge of the score was unequaled - he made it a point to really know the music. And his conducting technique was wonderful.

Bla Brtok: I played for him at Tanglewood. A very nice man, and a very good pianist.

Arturo Toscanini: He was a very mean, difficult man, and he thought all musicians were idiots. You could hear him saying swear words under his breath - "porci!" [swine!] or "assassini!" [assassins! (of music)]. But you can't blame him, in a way. He'd known Puccini, he'd known Verdi, he'd known the greats.

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