Joseph Kovacs, 91, died on April 27 in his home in the Meadow Lakes retirement community in Hightstown, where he had lived since 2004. Born May 20, 1924 in Budapest, Hungary, to Joseph and Katalin Hari Kovacs he began playing the violin under his father’s tutelage when he was five years old. He exhibited such talent that all his later teachers taught him for free. He won a scholarship at the Franz Liszt Royal Hungarian Academy of Music, where Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók were among his teachers and where he won the prestigious Hubay prize. At 18, he was offered a job as a concertmaster in Germany, so with his father’s blessing he fled the strife of war on foot, to avoid being shipped to Russia to fight. He crossed through Austria and Czechoslovakia into
Germany and stayed near the Denmark border, where, amid the sounds of war, he played the violin under several famous conductors. Among the hardships of the time, he spoke of having had to line his worn-out shoes with cardboard to prolong their usefulness.
In 1948, invited by relatives in New Jersey, he made his way to the United States and lived first in New Brunswick, then in Princeton. He became concertmaster of the original Princeton Symphony Orchestra under Nicholas Harsanyi in the 1950s and enrolled in the Westminster Choir College, where he taught violin and earned a degree in conducting.
Among his favorite extra-academic musical pursuits he founded the Collegium Musicum of Princeton in 1972, a small chamber group including many of his own students that met weekly and gave concerts for more than 25 years in Princeton churches. In addition to the serious classical music of Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg and others, he always offered shorter, lighter pieces to charm and touch the spirit of his listeners. He retired as professor emeritus from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
In 1960 he met flutist Dorothy Stritesky at a summer music camp. They married in June 1961 and they spent summers thereafter on Moosehead Lake in Northern Maine until Dorothy died in October, 2007. They had no children but left behind a host of devoted and grateful students, many of whom have their own careers in music today.
A memorial gathering will be held in the Meadow Lakes Meeting Room on Saturday, May 20 from 2 to 3 and will be followed by refreshments.
In lieu of flowers a tax-deductible donation may be made to the Education Award Fund, c/o Rev. Byron Shafer, 82 Meadow Lakes, Hightstown, NJ 08520.