Cellist George Sopkin of Surry dies at 94

Posted Oct. 31, 2008, at 8:39 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:58 a.m.

SURRY, Maine — Cellist George Sopkin, a founding member of the Fine Arts Quartet and longtime faculty member at Kneisel Hall School of Chamber Music in Blue Hill, died Tuesday at his home. He was 94.

Sopkin became involved with Kneisel Hall, the annual school and chamber music festival in Blue, after he retired and moved to Maine. He has been on the staff at the school since 1995.

He was “everything” to Kneisel Hall and his passing will leave an “enormous hole” at the school, according to Ellen Werner, Kneisel Hall’s executive director.

Sopkin was a driving force behind some additions to the Kneisel Hall programming, include a session for adult, amateur musicians and the annual House Concerts, which have become a significant source of revenue for the school. According to Werner, Sopkin also was an advocate for bringing Kneisel Hall students to Maine early in the season so they could perform in the local schools before the Kneisel Hall sessions began.

Sopkin had a way of communicating in a few words what he wanted students to learn, Werner said.

“The kids would say, ‘You go in and play and he’s always in a chair with his legs crossed and one hand behind his ear; and he listens.”’ she said. “When they were done, he’d say one or two words, and the kids would wonder, ‘That was coaching?”’

But, she said, in their next rehearsal they would realize that they were playing better than they had before.

“With the fewest words,” he could say the most,” she said, “and he was always right on.”

Sopkin had a vast knowledge of the classical repertoire, Werner said, but also was an advocate for more contemporary music.

“I always said he was the youngest person on the faculty, even though he was the oldest,” Werner said. “His choices for music for the students were always the most forward.”

A Chicago native, Sopkin attended the Chicago Conservatory of Music and became one of the youngest performers with the Chicago Symphony, joining the symphony as a teenager, according to his daughter, Paula Friedman. Sopkin also studied with cellist Emanuel Feuermann in Europe and New York, she said.

After World War II, he became a founding member of the Fine Arts Quartet, which toured extensively in the U.S., Europe and the Far East, and recorded most of the major literature for string quartet, according to a biography of Sopkin on the Kneisel Hall Web site, www.kneisel.org. In addition, Sopkin recorded solo repertoire by Ernest Bloch and John Downey, and solo works written for him by Werner Torkanowsky, the late Bangor Symphony Orchestra conductor, the biography says.

It adds that the members of the quartet became artists-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music and North-western University and in 1964 they were appointed professors of music at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where they combined a heavy teaching schedule while continuing to tour.

After more than three decades, Sopkin resigned from the quartet in 1979 and also retired from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as distinguished professor emeritus. He moved to Maine and joined the New England Piano Quartette, the biography says. In 1997 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 1998 he received the Chevalier du Violoncelle from the University of Indiana.

A memorial service is planned for next summer.

Those who want to send a memorial may donate to the George and Carol Sopkin Scholarship at Kneisel Hall, P.O. Box 648, Blue Hill 04614.

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