Harvey Chester Biskin was born Sept. 2, 1925, in Schenectady, New York, and died peacefully on June 8, 2020, in Athens, Georgia. A long life, well lived. Harvey passed away on his 68th wedding anniversary with his beloved bride, Bayla, and his three children at his side.
Banging on pots and pans as a child, it was clear from an early age that music would set the course for his entire life. He enjoyed a long and rich career, inspired by his dual passions for performance and music education.
He enrolled in The Eastman School of Music in 1943 as a percussion student. His studies were interrupted by a call to service during World War II. Harvey served in the Army’s 835th Signal Service Battalion and was stationed in India for over two years, an adventure he loved to colorfully recount. After the war, he returned to Eastman and completed his studies, earning a Bachelor of Music in Performance and Music Literature in 1949 and a Masters in Music Literature and Theory in 1950.
He began his professional career at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York in 1950, and performed with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra for 45 seasons. His commanding presence on the Amphitheater stage, dramatically poised at his timpani, won him many admirers.
That same year marked the start of a 40-year association with the San Antonio Symphony, where he started as a percussionist and, after one season, was promoted to principal timpanist, a role he held until 1991.
A miraculous South Texas snowstorm the day after an initial blind date kindled a lifelong romance with Bayla Sheinberg, a young pianist from Fort Worth. They married in 1952.
In 1955, Harvey became the San Antonio Symphony’s Education Director. It was in this role — programming, producing and narrating concerts, and later also conducting them — that he discovered his life mission for bringing classical music to children who otherwise might have never heard a live orchestra. He developed an extensive program of young persons’ concerts that reached three generations of students across San Antonio and beyond, becoming a model for outreach and enrichment to orchestras nationwide. Harvey expanded the program through relentless fundraising and intricate school district coordination. He trained a network of volunteer docents to prepare students for every performance, and added dance, opera, and student soloists to the programs, which reached over 150,000 children annually. Harvey was a beloved musical celebrity to the youth of San Antonio, as the charming explainer of the instruments of the orchestra, the mysteries of musical composition, and the history, romance, humor and drama contained in music.
He also instructed college students in timpani and percussion, as well as music literature and history, for 45 years, first at the University of Texas at Austin, and subsequently at five San Antonio campuses and at Chautauqua. He was known as a demanding but inspiring teacher, and many of the students he mentored went on to pursue professional careers in music.
Harvey applied this same talent, creativity and attention to detail to his other great passion — the kitchen. He was known for the elaborate Chinese feasts that he and Bayla (but mostly he) would prepare for their friends. Harvey loved all things food — both consuming and concocting — but it was the planning, preparing and eating Chinese cuisine that was truly his forte. Harvey and Bayla were ideal hosts; anyone invited to one of their gatherings was assured of a bountiful, first-rate meal, accompanied by Harvey’s lively storytelling and well-told jokes.
After his retirement from performing, Harvey continued to support the San Antonio and Chautauqua musical communities as a devoted audience member. It was hard not to notice his deep knowledge of whatever was being performed as he instinctively conducted the scores from his seat. He made it his policy to always congratulate the performers backstage after every concert.
Harvey and Bayla moved to Athens in 2015, where they continued to support the local music scene and to pursue their love of literature and learning.
In addition to Bayla, Harvey is survived by his three children Jill, Andy and Roslyn, along with their spouses Tom Cerbu, Limor Tomer and Rodney Crumrine, and four grandchildren: Alois Cerbu, Amal Harvey Biskin and Eli and Zach Crumrine.
Memorial gifts may be directed to the Chautauqua Foundation in support of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in memory of Harvey Biskin.