Mihaly 'Misi' Virizlay

The Baltimore Symphony's former principal cellist was also a composer and an international performer.

October 16, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Mihaly "Misi" Virizlay, former principal cellist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra who also was a composer and an international performer, died Monday of complications from a stroke at Merwick Nursing Home in Princeton, N.J., where he had lived since 2007.

The former Guilford resident was 76.

"I must say that for many generations he was the heart and soul of the BSO's cello section, and all of the music directors loved him," said Calman J. "Buddy" Zamoiski Jr., former BSO board chairman and symphony fundraiser. "He loved to play the cello. It was the love of his life."

Mr. Virizlay's tenure with the orchestra began in 1962 and spanned the next four decades through the directorships of Peter Herman Adler, Sergiu Comissiona, David Zinman and Yuri Temirkanov, under whose leadership he was named principal cellist emeritus in 2002.

Even though he suffered a stroke in 2002 after finishing a BSO concert, Mr. Virizlay continued to perform with the orchestra until 2004.

Mr. Virizlay, who was known as Misi (pronounced mee-shee), was born into a musical family in Budapest, Hungary. He was 4 years old when he began studying the violin with his father.

He was 7 when he entered the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, and when confronted with a roomful of students holding violins, he promptly gave it up and decided to study the cello instead.

Mr. Virizlay was such a promising student that he presented his first solo cello concert the next year.

"To make beautiful music on the cello is no more difficult than on the violin or any other instrument," he told The Evening Sun in a 1980 interview. "You need a good ear and heart, a good knowledge of the instrument and technical ability."

Ed Patey, who plays second violin with the BSO, is a longtime colleague and friend.

"He was a child prodigy and a brilliant cellist from an early age," said Mr. Patey, a member of the BSO since 1966.

In his native Hungary, Mr. Virizlay studied with composer Zoltan Kodaly and Janos Starker, and after graduation from the academy in 1955, he gained wide recognition as a cellist not only in his homeland but also in Austria, Albania, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956 marked a turning point in Mr. Virizlay's life.

Armed with an introductory letter from Mr. Kodaly and with $600 in his pocket, he left Hungary in 1957 and arrived at Camp Kilmer, N.J., near New Brunswick, where Hungarian refugees were interned. He later became a U.S. citizen.

It was his former teacher, Mr. Starker, who was then principal cellist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who helped him leave the internment camp and find a job at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Virizlay briefly succeeded Mr. Starker in Chicago, and then became assistant principal with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1960.

"His tone is a thing of uncommon beauty, richness and cultivation," wrote a critic after a concert with the Chicago Symphony.

Two years later, he moved to Baltimore when he joined the BSO, and he began teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in 1964.

Robin Kissinger, a concert pianist and former wife, said, "He always had a sound like no one else's. It spoke straight to your heart."

Mr. Virizlay, whose music idols were Bela Bartok and Mr. Kodaly, was also a noted composer.

His "Misi's Solo Sonata for Cello" was broadcast on BBC radio, and in 1987 he gave the premiere of his cello concerto at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall under the direction of Mr. Zinman.

In 1997, he was awarded the Chevalier du Violoncelle from the Eva Janzer Memorial Cello Center of Indiana University.

"He was also something of a bon vivant and a very generous human being," Mr. Zamoiski said. "He loved to give personal recitals at the homes of his good friends. It was very thoughtful of him."

Mr. Virizlay, who never lost his Hungarian accent, enjoyed good food, wine, laughter and being surrounded by family and friends.

"For years, I'd pick him up at his Hadley Square home, and I'd say, 'I think I need another hour or two to practice,' as we drove downtown," Mr. Patey said with a laugh. "And he'd come right back and say, 'No vay, it won't help you.' "

Mr. Virizlay enjoyed cooking dishes from his homeland such as Transylvanian stuffed cabbage, Hungarian hamburger and goulash.

"I love to make the food, and I love to see the success when people love it," he told The Evening Sun in a 1985 food feature. "Friends have told me to open a restaurant, but when would I do it?"

"He was passionate about life, music, his children and students, and about being a Hungarian and an American," said his third wife, Paula Skolnick-Childress, a BSO cellist.

"He had a very loving heart, and you could hear that in his sound," she said. "His second voice was the cello."

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5300 N. Charles St.

Surviving are two sons, David M. Virizlay of Los Angeles and Stefan M. Virizlay of Metuchen, N.J.; a daughter, Lianna Kissinger-Virizlay of Princeton; and two grandchildren. His marriages to Agi Rado, a noted concert pianist; Tricia Shallin; Ms. Skolnick-Childress; and Ms. Kissinger ended in divorce.

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