Estonians mourn a US emigre conductor, 88

Estonians mourn a US emigre conductor, 88


norman lebrecht

February 12, 2021

The conductor Taavo Virkhaus, former music director of the University of Rochester and the Duluth Symphony Orchestra, has died at 88.

His family left for Germany in 1944 and moved to the US five years later. From the 1970s he played a prominent role in Estonian musical life.



  • Brian Bell says:

    He taught conducting for quite a number of years at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York. A master of the technical skills of conducting. Many a star conductor would have benefited from his common sense insights.

  • GG says:

    Very sorry to hear the news. I was once manager of one of his orchestras. It was in fact my first management job where I “rose through the ranks.” I was quite young at the time and Taavo was kind enough to mentor me. He taught me all the basic principles of a well run and artistically thriving orchestra. He was a consummate professional both behind the scenes and on stage. They don’t (and they won’t) make conductors like him anymore. Farewell, old friend.

  • Peter says:

    I’ll never forget how Taavo never missed opportunity to say how great America is.

  • Bill says:

    Taavo was a family friend, and I was privileged to play for him for several years. Not mentioned in any of the accounts I’ve seen — he was a ferocious tennis player! And in non-orchestral settings, he was a delight to talk to about everything from what the WPO should do after Boskovsky’s retirement to the merits of his favorite composing diet when his wife was away (lots of beer and potato chips).

    Here’s the full obituary:

    Taavo Virkhaus, Music Director and Conductor of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra from 1989-2003, died of Covid on Feb 10. Taavo was born on June 29, 1934 in Tartu, Estonia to a family of conductors. His grandfather, David Otto Virkhaus, is considered the Father of Estonian Band Music; the Estonian Songfest held every four years begins with a parade carrying a torch lit from the eternal fire which burns at his grave. Taavo’s father, Adalbert August Virkhaus, was the first professionally trained (in Leipzig, Germany) conductor of the Estonian Opera House. Taavo began conducting as a four-year-old guest conductor of a summer band in a resort town, and was a huge hit.

    During the WWII Russian occupation of Estonia, Adalbert was forewarned by a former student passing by in the street: “If I were you, I and my family would not be home tonight.” The family immediately left for relatives in the country, thus escaping the fate of the thousands who were sent to Siberia that night. There followed five years in refugee camps all over Europe. The family was able to stay together because the parents were too old, and Taavo and his sister Kirsti too young, to work in the war factories. During this time, Taavo continued to study the violin, but as there was no sheet music to be had, his father wrote out much of the violin repertory from memory.

    When the war ended they were in Czechoslovakia, in the Russian zone. Because they were still on the Siberia list, they knew they had to get out before the Russians occupied the area. Adalbert, who was fluent in both German and Russian, had been the translator for the young mayor; in return for this, the mayor gave the family safe traveling papers to get to the American zone. Everywhere they went, they had to show their papers. The last leg of the harrowing trip found them sneaking through the woods to avoid Russian soldiers. When they finally reached the American zone, the guards did not ask for papers, but welcomed them in with open arms.

    After several years in American camps, Adalbert received a job offer in Fort Lauderdale, which allowed the family to come to America. Taavo graduated from Fort Lauderdale High School, and about this time became an American citizen. He received a full-tuition scholarship for playing in the orchestra of the University of Miami, where he graduated with honors. He received his Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts in Conducting and Composition from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, where he also was given full scholarships for playing in the orchestras; Taavo always credited his education to his violin. He then served on the conducting faculty of the Eastman School of Music, where his First Violin Concerto was awarded the Howard Hanson Prize. Here he met his wife, Nancy.

    Taavo was the Music Director and Conductor of both the Duluth-Superior and the Huntsville Symphony Orchestras, with many guest conducting engagements around the world. He wrote six symphonies and two violin concertos, as well as many incidental pieces.

    Taavo always claimed he was the biggest patriot, and loved the United States for what it is, as well as for the opportunities it gave him.

    He is survived by his wife Nancy, a nephew, Rick Kjeldsen, and niece, Deena Durant.

    Because of the pandemic, no gathering is being planned. Donations in his name may be made to the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, PO Box 2400, Huntsville, AL 35804 or or the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra Guild, also at P. O. Box 2400, Huntsville, AL 35804.

  • Skip Gundlach says:

    My family had the great privilege to count him as a friend and teacher/conductor.

    For the entire time I and my siblings were in school in Penfield NY, he was the conductor for all things orchestral (we had a very full music department, so there were separate directors/conductors for all the band related stuff and another for all the vocal related stuff), for the burgeoning school system in the Boomer years.

    I was touched when I wanted to be in one of the musicals in my senior year, but he said, “I really need you in the pit.” As far as I could tell as a callow youth, he really meant it, and so I did.

    He was solicitous of challenging passages in various pieces we performed and other small personal touches which made him such an effective educator.

    My mother, also a Music teacher (head of the department at a local private school) and he were close buddies.

    Entirely by chance, I met one of his friends from the summer camps the two couples went to each year; as a result of having heard (I was not a social equal, so he was always Mr. Virkhaus) his name pronounced, I was able to properly pronounce my new friend’s last name.

    I think of him often, despite my not having spoken to him in more than 50 years…