Camilla Wicks, acclaimed mid-century violin virtuoso, dies at 92

At a time when classical music was heavily dominated by men, Ms. Wicks was often described as the foremost female concert violinist of her generation. She was, without question, the first prominent female violin soloist born in the United States.

Ms. Wicks, who grew up in a musical household, made her solo debut at age 7, performing a Mozart violin concerto with an orchestra in her hometown of Long Beach, Calif. By age 10, she was studying at the Juilliard School in New York, and at 13 she gave her first solo concert in New York.

After appearing at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic at 18, she launched an international career, winning critical praise for her sensitive musicianship. She presented hundreds of concerts over the next decade with the world’s leading orchestras.

Ms. Wicks was widely known and photographed, yet she gave few substantive interviews throughout her life. Instead, it was left to critics, most of them men, to describe her variously as “a violin genius,” a “violin-playing Madonna” and a “delicate woman . . . consumed by the demon of music.”

Her extensive repertoire ranged from Bach to challenging 20th-century compositions, and she appeared with such renowned conductors as Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski and Fritz Reiner. Her violin was a Stradivarius.

In the early 1950s, Ms. Wicks played the violin concerto of Jean Sibelius for the composer himself, who reportedly pronounced it the best version he had heard. Her 1953 performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, under Walter’s direction, “was evidence that the young artist has developed into a violinist of distinction,” critic Ross Parmenter wrote in the New York Times.

“The performance was . . . so pure in tone, so carefully considered, so refined in feeling and so technically secure that it easily held the attention of the large audience.”

More than 50 years later, when a radio recording of the concerto was issued on compact disc, critic Raymond Tuttle, writing for the Classical.net website, called it “one of the best performances of the Beethoven I’ve ever heard.”

Ms. Wicks’s career was at its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, when such illustrious violinists as Jascha Heifetz, Zino Francescatti, Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin were active. She made few recordings, Tuttle wrote, but a 2005 disc that included several of her performances of that era “supports the claim that she was worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned male colleagues.”

When Ms. Wicks performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto in New York in 1953, she was visibly pregnant. She continued her concert career for a few years, but in 1958 she abandoned the stage to be with her family, which eventually included five children.

She sold her Stradivarius and moved to Texas, where she began teaching. After a divorce in 1965, she slowly returned to the concert stage, making occasional appearances over the next 30 years. She moved often, from a remote town in Washington state to teaching positions in California, Louisiana, Michigan and back to Texas.

In the 1970s, she spent several years in her ancestral homeland of Norway, teaching at a music conservatory in Oslo. She taught at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., then at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, from which she retired in 2005.

Five years ago, the classical record label Music & Arts released a six-disc compilation of previously unavailable recordings by Ms. Wicks, many of them chamber works recorded from the 1940s to the 1990s.

“What is revealed in this comprehensive survey of Wicks’ career,” critic Henry Fogel wrote in Fanfare magazine, “is a front rank artist who merits a greater public reputation than was granted her. Her technique is as close to flawless as humans get, and her intelligence and interpretive breadth are clearly those of a major artist.”

Camilla Dolores Wicks was born Aug. 9, 1928, in Long Beach. Her father was a Norwegian-born violinist, her mother an American-born pianist.

Ms. Wicks showed an early interest in music and asked for a violin when she was 3. Her father was her first teacher. At Juilliard, Ms. Wicks’s mentor was Louis Persinger, whose other violin students included Menuhin, Stern and Ruggiero Ricci. In the 1960s, when Ms. Wicks resumed her career, Ricci gave her one of his violins, made in 1959 by Australian Arthur Smith.

Ms. Wicks’s marriage to Robert Thomas ended in divorce. Two sons, Philip Thomas and Paul Thomas, died in 2011 and 2017, respectively. Survivors include three children, Angela Thomas Jeffrey, Erik Thomas and Lise-Marie Thomas Wertanzl; and three grandchildren.

Her only sibling, Virginia Wicks, who died in 2013, was a publicist for such jazz artists as Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.

After performing at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and Europe’s top concert halls in her 20s, Ms. Wicks was content in her later years to appear in small recitals or chamber concerts. Many of those performances were collected in the 2015 six-disc set, “Camilla Wicks: Five Decades of Treasured Performances.”

“The thrill of concert life,” Ms. Wicks said in one of her few interviews, with Southland magazine in 1953, “all boils down to a single multiple experience — the time one stands, drained of all you have given that evening, on the particular stage — loving the people you have played for . . . listening to their cries for ‘Encore!’ . . . feeling unworthy of all this and yet knowing something important and great has just happened to you and to the people out there.”

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