Retired Chicago Symphony viola master named Norwich Native Son Award recipient

Norwich — Retired Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal violist Charles Pikler was planning a visit to his hometown of Norwich in June to celebrate his 50th high school reunion at Norwich Free Academy and work with today’s NFA string students for a special post-graduation concert June 15.

He had to alter his plans to arrive a week earlier after learning he was named the 2019 recipient of the Norwich Rotary clubs and Woman’s City Club Native Son Award. The award banquet will be at noon June 5 at the Holiday Inn Norwich. Tickets and event information will be available at bit.ly/NorwichNative.

The award, in its 52nd year, recognizes outstanding achievements by Norwich natives outside the local area.

"I’m very honored," Pikler said Tuesday. "Norwich didn’t forget about me. I’ve been gone from there since 1969. It’s very rewarding seeing that when you’re away from a place for half a century and they didn’t forget about you."

Pikler joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a first violinist and, in 1986, he was named principal violist. Upon his retirement in October 2017, he received the Theodore Thomas Medallion for Distinguished Service.

Growing up in Norwich, Charlie studied the piano with his mother, well-known local teacher Alice Pikler, and performed solos from an early age in the Norwich Public Schools music program. He attended Buckingham School, Kelly Junior High School and Norwich Free Academy.

He then studied at the University of Connecticut, working with Ben Ornstein and Bronislaw Gimpel — who became his mentor and inspiration — and Roman Totenberg at the Tanglewood Young Artist Program at the Berkshire Music Center. Upon his retirement in October 2017, Pikler announced plans to complete a massive archival recording project he started in 1999 to remaster the recordings of his late professor Gimpel.

While a student, he appeared as soloist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Eastern Connecticut Symphony and Manchester Civic Orchestra. In his second year at NFA, Pikler was the original concert master of the Eastern Connecticut Youth Symphony, and in his senior year, he played "Carmen" for ECSO.

"I still have the program, with my name in it," Pikler said. "And I played it again just two months ago. Imagine that."

Pikler said he was "very grateful" to his first music teacher, Ornstein, who taught him violin and started him in the Norwich Symphony. He also thanked NFA music teachers Andrew Tellier and Bennett Edwards, and for his chance to play during grammar and junior high school.

"I am very, very for music in the schools," Pikler said. "I think music should be a major subject like English, math, science. ... Music helps you in every other aspect of life. If one studies music, they will do better in every other subject."

Yet he earned his bachelor of arts degree in mathematics with honors from the University of Minnesota.

He launched his musical career as a violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1971, later becoming a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, 1974 to 1976, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, 1976 to 1978, and in 1978, at the invitation to join the first violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Pikler served on the faculty of Northwestern University, North Park University, Northeastern Illinois University, Wheaton College and the American Conservatory of Music. He coached the violists of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, as well as other ensembles at the Midwest Young Artists program in Highwood, Ill.

He is the founder and music director of I Solisti, a chamber orchestra which is part of the Midwest Young Artists program. Pikler has taught or given master classes at prestigious universities, conservatories and music festivals, such as Eastman School of Music, University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Sewanee Music Festival.

NFA classmate Faye Ringel, a piano student of Alice Pikler and fellow youth musician with Charles Pikler, nominated him for the Native Son Award. “He and I did music together from the time we were little kids,” Ringel said.

Ringel also is chairwoman of the NFA Class of 1969 reunion committee and already was collaborating with Pikler and NFA orchestral music director, Kristen Motola, on his plan to offer master classes to today’s NFA string music students in preparation for a free concert performance scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, June 15, at Slater Auditorium. She said she has nominated Pikler for the Native Son Award in the past, but this year, it was “particularly important” to honor her classmate, because of the 50th reunion plans.

“Charlie has always had a passion for bringing classical music to young people,” Ringel wrote in her nomination form. “He has performed at many schools and has gone beyond giving individual lessons and master classes to creating performing ensembles for young musicians. ... In addition to being a world-renowned musician, he is a wonderful and giving person.”

In 2014, while attending his 45th NFA reunion, Pikler offered a master class to NFA string players, as well. He looks forward to playing with Ringel again.

"We were voted most popular musicians in the class, and here it is 50 years later playing again together at our reunion," Pikler said.

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of NFA music teacher Andrew Tellier's name.

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