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Obituary: Remembering violinist and former ASO Concertmaster William Steck

WIlliam Steck (Photo courtesy Ann Steck)
WIlliam Steck
WIlliam Steck was “a touchstone” during his time at the ASO. (Photo courtesy of Ann Steck)

Violinist William Steck, who served as concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1974 to 1982 and ended his distinguished career as concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra, died peacefully in his sleep in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 13, in his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. He was 79.

Steck was married to violinist Ann Steck and was the father of William Stacey (married to Flora Calderon), Allegra and Randall Steck, and the grandfather of Julian, Jonathan and Lucia.

He played a contemporary violin, made in 1979 by Sergio Peresson.

Before becoming concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra, where he served from 1982 to 2001 under Music Directors Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonard Slatkin, Steck was concertmaster of the ASO under Robert Shaw. He had previously played with the San Antonio Symphony, the Saint Louis Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, been assistant concertmaster with the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia under Anshel Brusilow and the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, and then briefly concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Michael Palmer, who was associate conductor of the ASO when Steck came to Atlanta in 1974, recalls, “His arrival brought a great change, advancement and development in the string section. He had come from terrific traditions of the Philadelphia Orchestra and, especially, Cleveland Orchestra with George Szell, with very specific information in his head which he imparted right away. He was always a touchstone, a dedicated artist and a wonderful person.”

Steck also performed as soloist on occasion, with groups such as the Virginia Chamber Orchestra and the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. During his tenure with the National Symphony, he was featured as soloist in works by Bruch, Bartók, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Vaughan Williams, Korngold and Martinon, among others.

Steck was also active in chamber music throughout his career. While in Atlanta, he co-founded the Lanier Trio with cellist Dorothy Hall Lewis and pianist Cary Lewis. It was Steck who came up with the idea to name the group after Georgia poet and musician Sidney Lanier. The deciding factor was a quote from the poet that became the trio’s motto: “Music is love in search of a word.”

According to Cary Lewis, organizing rehearsals of the Lanier Trio was easy. “We were next-door neighbors,” says Lewis, who now lives in Portland, Oregon. “So he would just walk over with his violin in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, and we’d rehearse.” He also fondly recalls how “Bill and Ann would occasionally head out for breakfast at Waffle House at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

After moving from Atlanta to the Washington area, Steck made chamber music appearances at the Library of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences, the Hirshhorn Museum and other notable venues. Summer festival appearances included the Red Lodge Music Festival and the Flathead Festival, both in Montana; the Kapalua Music Festival in Maui, Hawaii; and the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Steck made recordingss for the Educo and the now-defunct Gasparo labels.

“Bill was a craftsman at heart. He liked to work with his hands,” says Lewis, noting that Steck made violin bows, then in retirement took up quilting with his wife. Lewis and others have described the Steck quilts as “truly beautiful works of art.”

On Sunday, the Atlanta Symphony Musicians posted on their Facebook page that Steck “had a profound influence on countless musicians, both in Atlanta and throughout the country, and he will surely be missed.” A visitation gathering for family, friends and colleagues was held at Everly Wheatley Funeral Home in Alexandria on Tuesday afternoon.

A note to readers: A single article cannot fully pay tribute to the life of an artist who touched as many people as did William Steck. We encourage readers to contribute their own memories and stories in the Comments section below.

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