Early Life and Education
Joseph Firszt, born from a long line of Polish musicians, began to perform music professionally at the age of 13 when he became the youngest member of the Pittsburgh Opera Company. He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music and also studied at Boston University. He performed as a violinist with several orchestras both inside and outside the United States.
Mr. Firszt first came to Berea College in 1953 where he was appointed as director of instrumental music within the Music Department. Firszt’s central focus as director of instrumental music was directed toward the college orchestra. Many Berea students saw him as an “instigating force for stretching their musical muscles.” While at Berea he met and married Alma Lundgren, designer of Churchill Weavers.
While serving on the faculty of the Berea Music Department, Mr. Firszt performed the viola in the Lexington Symphony Orchestra. In 1961 he was appointed assistant conductor of the orchestra. He made his debut as a conductor on October 23, 1961. William Mootz in a music review critiquing the event wrote, “Firszt made a confident debut Monday night. To a visiting fireman it seemed that he may have given his players an extraordinarily ambitious program. The Brahms Symphony and much of the Beethoven concerto taxed them to the limit, Firszt evidently believes in plunging into deep waters to learn to swim. He charted his orchestra through tricky currents with sweeping gestures and a strong beat.”
His Work in Poland
In 1962, Mr. Firszt was invited by the Polish Ministry of Culture to spend several months in touring Poland to perform music and conduct research. Berea College gave him a year’s leave of absence allowing him to take advantage of this remarkable opportunity. While in Poland, Mr. Firszt conducted philharmonic orchestras or opera companies in every major city in Poland including Warsaw, Katowice, Wroclaw, Bydgoszcz, Tourun, Gdnansk, Bielsko Bialo, and many others. He also made several viola solo appearances. In commenting on his tours Mr. Firszt said, “I found the musical life in Poland to be very exciting and most interesting. The people seem to be more serious minded about music than people in other parts of the world. While in Poland I worked with some of the best musicians in the country. The biggest drawback I found with the big orchestras is the problem of finding adequate instruments.”
In June 1963 Mr. Firszt received a Department of Commerce citation for his works as musical adviser for the United States Pavillion at the 32nd International Trade Fair held in Poznan, Poland. At that time, the Poznan Fair was the second largest trade fair in the world with 62 nations participating. Firtszt’s responsibilities included the scheduling and producing of concerts by an instrumental group from the Eastman School of Music, supervising the Polish employees of the music exhibit, organizing instrumental clinics, and meeting with Polish musicians, conductors, and managers who were anxious to see American-made instruments.
Life After Work at Berea
As time progressed, the Music Department college orchestra became less and less a primary focus for the college. The steady decline of interest in the orchestra and its eventual termination, provided one of the final incentives for Mr. Firszt to retire from Berea College. As writer, Martin Ambrose, puts it in the Berea Citizen, “He seemed to sense the economic, ‘writing on the wall’ which presaged last year’s ending of the strings program at the college, and sought more flexible fields.” After retiring from Berea he served as first executive director of the Lime Orchestra Area Arts Council in Lima, Ohio. He also became an artist-in-residence at Findlay College, Ohio and became a member of the Findlay Chamber Ensemble, for which he played the violin.
“Joseph Firszt Returns After Year of Musical Work in Poland.” Berea Citizen. No.9. November 14, 1963.