Robert C. Weiskopf, Enlighted Patron of Music, 19191979


Robert Weiskopf set out to be a professional musician. But instead, he became a successful businessman who expressed his love of music as an accomplished amateur conductor and an enthusiastic patron. 

Born in Cleveland on January 17, 1919, Weiskopf began cello lessons at age 10. Two years later, he discovered his interest in conducting by leading the student band at Roosevelt Junior High School in Cleveland Heights. After graduating from Heights High School, where he was student director of the band and orchestra, he was awarded a scholarship to study conducting at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He also took a summer course with Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood, where he struck up a lifelong friendship with fellow student Leonard Bernstein.

After earning his undergraduate degree in 1941, Weiskopf returned home and organized the Cleveland Heights Civic Symphony, a community orchestra that made its debut in a concert featuring pianist Eunice Podis. The pianist and conductor had met playing chamber music in high school. They married in 1942 and moved to California, where Podis studied with Artur Rubinstein. For the rest of his life, Weiskopf supported his wife’s brilliant career.

During World War II, Weiskopf served in the United States Army Medical Corps in the Philippines and became assistant music director of the Manila Symphony Orchestra. After the war, he sought a conducting post in America. But the only job available was with a small orchestra in Michigan at an annual salary of $1,800. “I was already paying the maid that much so my wife could continue her career,” Weiskopf once told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. And so, he abandoned his musical dreams and joined the family business, Cleveland Cotton Products. Beginning as a salesman, he worked his way up to company president.

He never abandoned his love of music, however. In 1956, he was named music director of the Suburban Symphony, a semi-professional orchestra based in Beachwood, Ohio. He also connected with the Cleveland Orchestra as an active trustee and chairman of the annual fundraising marathon on WCLV-FM, Cleveland’s classical music station. In 1970, Weiskopf made a $1,000 bid at a benefit auction to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, its summer home. Though conceived as a plum for a wealthy patron who would lead the musicians in a simple ditty, Weiskopf chose to conduct challenging repertoire, including Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 1 with Podis as soloist. He subsequently made winning bids to conduct the Houston, Detroit, Akron, Cincinnati and Florida orchestras and the New York Philharmonic. In addition, he gave generously of his time, wisdom and wealth to the Cleveland Music School Settlement, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Singing Angels and other musical organizations.

Weiskopf made his final public appearance on April 30, 1979, when he struggled out of a hospital bed and traveled by ambulance to the Palace Theatre in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square to accept a Special Citation for Distinguished Service to the Arts from the Cleveland Arts Prize. Six days later, he died of pancreatic cancer. In 1980, an endowment for the Suburban Symphony was established in his memory. “His example could stand as a model of arts patronage,” wrote Plain Dealer music critic Robert Finn. “It was not merely a matter of dollars and cents, though the sheer generosity with which he supported the [Cleveland] Orchestra was extraordinary in itself. What made him remarkable was the creative, informed and enlightened activism that went with the money.”

—Wilma Salisbury


Cleveland Arts Prize
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