Joseph Leavitt, executive director who helped build BSO, dies at 74


September 24, 1990|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Joseph Leavitt, the former executive director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra who helped put the BSO on its road to national prominence, died in Boca Raton, Fla., Friday night of complications from a stroke he suffered a week before. He was 74.

Mr. Leavitt began to run the BSO in 1973. By the time he retired 11 years later, the orchestra had built a new hall -- Meyerhoff Symphony Hall -- and had weathered several financial crises, gone on its first European tour, made its first records for major labels and hired David Zinman as its new music director.

After his retirement he moved to Boca Raton, where he oversaw the merger of two local orchestras into the Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida, perhaps the state's premier symphony.

"Joe, [the late] Joseph Meyerhoff and [former BSO music director] Sergiu Comissiona were the ones who put this orchestra on the map," said John Gidwitz, who succeeded Mr. Leavitt as executive director in 1984.

As an orchestra manager, Mr. Leavitt was far removed from today's breed of spit-and-polish, elegantly haber--ered types who tend to be armed with MBAs from places like Harvard or Yale. He was a former percussionist who talked as bluntly as a deli counterman.

When asked why he ended his retirement of only a few months to become the vice president of a struggling Florida orchestra, Mr. Leavitt said: "They asked me to come in for a few days to do some volunteer work. After a few weeks, I was running the joint."

Because he had been a musician, he had an unusual rapport with his players. "As a guy who had been a player himself, he knew what it took to make something really good," said Phillip Kolker, the BSO's principal bassoonist. "That good playing meant something to him meant a lot to me and the other players."

In 1986, Mr. Leavitt was honored with the Louis Sutler Award of the

American Symphony Orchestra League, the greatest honor an American orchestra manager can win. He also served on several music panels for the National Endowment for the Arts.

After growing up in the Boston area, graduation from the New England Conservatory and service in World War II, Mr. Leavitt became principal percussionist of the BSO.

In 1948, he moved to the National Symphony and, over the course of the next 20 years, gradually moved into administration as the orchestra's assistant manager. He became general manager of the New Jersey Symphony in 1968 and, while still running that organization, became the first executive director of the Wolf Trap performing arts center in Vienna, Va.

"I went to Wolf Trap part-time while I was still with the New Jersey Symphony," Mr. Leavitt said at the time of his retirement from the BSO. "I always seemed to be starting a new job while finishing another, and I was still at Wolf Trap while starting in Baltimore. I fulfilled my life's ambition here."

Mr. Leavitt is survived by his wife of 46 years, Sallie Leavitt; a son, Howard Leavitt of New York City; and a daughter, Joan Leavitt of Buena Park, Calif.

His body was to be cremated. There will a memorial service in Boca Raton in November. The family suggested donations in his memory to the Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida's endowment fund in Fort Lauderdale.

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