Elsa Hilger, Groundbreaking Female Cellist

Born in Czechoslovakia and schooled at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory, Elsa Hilger and her two sisters came to America in 1919. Her musical family toured the country, performing concerts. In 1934, Elsa was the first woman, aside from harpists, to become a permanent member of a major symphony orchestra. She was invited to join the Philadelphia Orchestra by conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Elsa celebrated her nintieth birthday on April 17, 1994. She began playing the cello at the age of nine, in the year 1913. Her older sister was a violinist, who studied with Arthur Kochevcik, who would come to their house to give lessons. Every time there was a lesson, Elsa would just sit and watch. One day Kochevcik decided Elsa's hands looked for playing the cello. The very same day her family sent for a mail-order cello from Prague. When the cello arrived, Elsa began lessons, and loved it immediately.

Elsa was good friends with Stokowski's wife, Olga Samarov. One day Olga called her on the phone and said that her husband was looking for a cellist, and wanted to hear her play. Olga asked her to come to Philadelphia that very same day. Of course Elsa went, and her sisters went with her. She played solo pieces for Stokowski on the stage of the Academy of Music for two hours.

In an interview given a few years ago, Elsa said, "I had no idea what I was in for! Because then we gave a lot of tours with the Philadelphia Orchestra, all the way to California and back, and everywhere. And always they had a big article, usually in the front of the paper, about the first female in any major orchestra. So, I think they got their money's worth out of that!" She played in the Philadelphia orchestra for 35 years, and never missed a rehersal or a concert. She retired in 1969, but still performs.

In her lifetime Ms. Hilger had the experience of playing with all kinds of people. She recalled playing quartets with Albert Einstein, the great mathematician. "That was very interesting. He was a wonderful musician! We were surprised because we never even heard that he played himself. We played several Beethoven quartets, string quartets and piano. We had such a good time. We had dinner with him, and we were invited back and all that. And he heard about my cello being stolen-that was the year before-and he was absolutely enraged."

As well as performing, Ms. Hilger enjoys fishing, swimming, bicycling and working in her vegetable garden.

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