I’ve written a few times about my experience with the Seattle Chamber Music Society over the past year, but there is one more thing I would like to touch on — in many ways the most important of all.

In May, when I went to visit the SCMS commissioning club to talk about the piece I had written for them, I stayed at the home of seventy-one-year-old cellist Toby Saks.  Toby founded SCMS about 30 years ago, so at my first opportunity (as it happened, over appetizers), I asked her how SCMS had come about, because I’m always curious about such things.  She seemed very happy to share the story (which is, after all, pretty fascinating) and she gave me a mostly chronological narrative of the first 10-15 years of SCMS over the course of dinner and beyond.  Listening to her story gave me wonderful insights into her character: passionate, uncompromising, courageous.

The next morning she asked if I would like to go on a stroll through a nearby park.  I’m a big fan of getting a bit of fresh air, spending a half hour or so communing with nature, and so I took her up on it.  This walk, much to my surprise, kept going and going.  After two hours, during which we got lost several times, we returned to her home.  It was noon, so I figured we were in for a well-deserved lunch after our exercise.  Instead, she said, “Well, we may as well keep going, down to the waterfront, what do you say?”  So I had another 90-minute hike ahead of me.

Indeed, I had nothing to complain about, for our conversation was lively and far-reaching, and when we finished our 3.5 hour “stroll,” the talk continued into lunch.  We talked about music, of course — her time as one of the first women in the NY Philharmonic, teaching music fundamentals (which she had been doing at the University of Washington for many years), chamber music playing, music administration – but we also moved on to broader topics: marriage, divorce, parenting, aging, literature, history, friends, human nature, animals.

Funny, I’ve been on longer hikes before, but I believe this was the longest, non-stop, one-on-one conversation I’ve ever engaged in.

One part of our chat that stuck with me was her account of the relationships she had formed through SCMS and, in particular, the times when she had to stop inviting musicians who were no longer playing well enough, which she regarded as a painful but necessary part of her role as Artistic Director.  Then the time came when she had to acknowledge that she was no longer the cellist she wanted to be, and she accepted that change gracefully, moving exclusively into the administrative work of the society.  After a few years, she decided she had had enough of that work, and she handed her baby over to James Ehnes, stepping aside into the role of local contact and host for visiting musicians.  She averred (and James later confirmed this for me) that she gave him complete autonomy in the operation, never interfering with his vision, which is a remarkable thing to do with something you have given so much of your life to.

I left Seattle the next morning eager for my July return, so we could pick up where we left off.  But when I got back, her lovely home, which had been a calm refuge on my previous visit, was a chaotic whirl — the SCMS summer season was in full swing, dozens of musicians grabbing meals and rehearsing in various rooms — so I just managed a few quick chats with her.  While my piece was being rehearsed, she stretched out on the sofa in the music room and napped peacefully, which I found completely charming.

On July 8th, my piece was premiered downtown, but she wasn’t able to make it because her son and grandson were flying in that evening from Europe.  I returned home the next morning sad that we hadn’t had more time to talk.

A few weeks later, I got the shocking news that Toby was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis she had received just a few days before I had arrived for my performance.  I found out that when she learned she was dying she wouldn’t hear of altering any SCMS plans: the home she shared with her husband Marty Greene was still the epicenter of the festival, which ran as scheduled through July 26th.  She died on August 1st.

The way she approached death was of a piece with the way she approached life.  “Death has never scared me,” she said to the Seattle Times shortly after I last saw her.  “I’ve never been afraid of it.”

In the days after she died, I found a wistful little tune looping through my mind, and I sketched out a brief canon for cello and violin.  The relationship Toby had with life and death, with SCMS, with violinist James Ehnes – all of these things seemed to be converging in a few notes, in the lovely way music has of finding connections among our least articulate thoughts.  When I finished it, though, I realized it was a bit more prosaic and linear than was appropriate: cello leads, violin follows.  I tossed it and began again, this time with three cellos playing in a splintered unison.  The violin followed as a clearly defined voice, adding its own character to the cellos’ line.  Instead of simply leading, the cellos led and responded to the violin line, sometimes as a single voice, sometimes as a warm, choral embrace.

I called it Passing Tones, a name that – like the loss of a loved one – is at once painfully simple and multifaceted.  Toby has passed gracefully from this life, as she passed SCMS gracefully to James.  The cellos pass a tune to the violin, which passes it back.  And passing tones, in musical parlance, are the simplest, most common dissonances in Western Music, present in abundance in pretty much every piece Toby ever played, as she certainly knew, having been a teacher of music fundamentals all these years.

When I felt I had it right, I sent it off to James.  I wasn’t sure what he would do with it, but I thought that although I was fulfilling a selfish need in writing the piece – as a way of coping with loss — the result might have some value for others as well.

I’ve since learned that there will be a memorial service for Toby in Benaroya Hall next month – October 14th — and this piece will be performed.  I wish I could attend, but I’m hopeful that Passing Tones will have a meaningful presence in my absence.

One Response to “Passing Tones”
  1. Robert S. Phillips says:

    This is an extraordinarily moving account of Mr. Dillon’s interaction with the remarkable and unforgettable Toby Saks. As an aficionado of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival for nearly 25 years and one who counted himself her friend, I can attest to the impact this amazing woman has had on our entire community. The tribute to her, held last Monday, in which Mr. Dillon’s work in her memory was played, certainly bore this out, for it was attended by approximately 1000 people to whom it was important to say ‘goodbye’ to her. Thank you, Lawrence, for sharing your poignant experience with Toby in the last three months of her life, during which her strength and nobility of soul were so evident.

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