Charles Treger was born in Iowa City in 1935 and started playing a violin at age 7. He began taking formal lessons two years later. That meant he had to unlearn what he’d taught himself. When he turned 11, he gave his first concert, on his way to a career that would take him to all the world’s stages and make him a media star in the early 1960s.
But Treger, who grew up in Detroit as the son of a Ford Motor Co. inspector, also liked playing baseball when he was a kid.
“My mother used to worry about me a lot,” he told a Gazette reporter. “I was always leaving my violin in the alley while I went to play baseball.”
He also participated in track, hockey and basketball, but he gave up sports at age 16.
“I had to make a decision between violin and baseball,” he said. “That was the end of baseball, although I had a good curve ball and slider and was doing well.”
Treger, at age 16, began rehearsing with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in September 1951 as second chair violin. He said he was given the choice of first or second chair.
“I chose the second violin,” he said at the time. “I need plenty of experience before becoming a real symphony musician.”
In order to play in the symphony’s fall and winter concerts, he took summer school classes.
After high school, Treger studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, the Aspen Music School and under William Kroll and Sigmund Goldberg of New York.
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He became an associate music professor at the University of Iowa in 1960.
Cold War win
In June 1962, Treger was invited to compete in the Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition in Poland, which surprised him. Those invited had to be nominated by leading musicians.
He accepted and began training for the November competition, increasing his normal practice schedule from four hours a day to six.
On Oct. 31, he flew to Warsaw. “Then it hit me that I was behind the Iron Curtain,” he told The Gazette reporter.
When he arrived at his hotel in Poznan, he was told one of the passengers on his plane had been diagnosed with polio.
For more than two weeks, throughout the contest, Treger’s temperature was taken every morning and evening. He didn’t get sick, but he learned that his temperature went up 1 degree before a performance and returned to normal afterward.
At the end of the competition, the 27-year-old Treger became the first American to win the coveted contest. A violinist from the Soviet Union came in second. This was during the Cold War — just four years after U.S. pianist Van Cliburn had wowed the world by winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow — and President John Kennedy sent Treger a congratulatory telegram.
Treger won the competition — named for a famous 19th century Polish composer and held every five years — playing an 1835 French-made Vuillaune violin worth $3,000 — about $25,000 in today’s dollars.
“The selection of Treger was a popular one,” The Gazette reported. “The young American was an obvious favorite with the nightly Poznan concert crowds, which reached an estimated total of 20,000 during the two weeks. Treger was besieged by autograph hunters, for the city of 400,000 became completely wrapped up in the competition, knew most of the original contestants by sight and even quoted odds on the winners.”
On his return trip to Iowa City, Treger stopped in New York City to hire an agent. He arrived at the Cedar Rapids airport Dec. 5, where a Gazette photographer snapped a Treger family photo that appeared on the front page the next day.
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At a Dec. 9 reception at the University of Iowa Memorial Union, he played several of the pieces from his award-winning performance.
Treger played with the Iowa String Quartet at the inauguration of Gov. Harold Hughes on Jan. 17. The quartet, founded in 1959, featured members of the Iowa music faculty. The other members were John Ferrell, William Preucil and Camilla Doppman.
The acclaimed virtuoso went on to play for Leonard Bernstein in New York in 1963. When he finished, Bernstein said, “It is a great privilege to listen to you play.”
Treger played for a large Carnegie Hall audience in October 1965 that included many musicians, with the New York Times reviewer proclaiming, “He is a master.” The concert concluded with three encores and a dozen curtain calls.
After 10 years at the UI, Treger performed his last concert as a faculty member on May 12, 1971, in the Memorial Union. The Treger family — wife Deborah and two daughters — left for New York City, where Treger began a rigorous concert schedule with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
The University of Massachusetts at Amherst appointed Treger visiting professor of music in 1986. He had received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., where he was a visiting professor of music for many years.
Treger performed with the Springfield, Mass., symphony for an evening of Mozart in February 1990. By then, he had performed in nearly every major music center in the United States and Europe.
As the first and only American — still — to win the Wieniawski Competition, Treger returned to Poznan in 1996 as a jurist for the 11th competition, telling the musicians the competition was not a contest, but a concert, where one’s personality and communication with the audience is important.
Two years later, he returned to Poznan to perform the concertos he played in 1962, A portion of that concert, an interview with him and footage from the 1962 competition can be seen on YouTube. It’s a spectacular eight minutes spent with a master.