William Stokking, 81, retired principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and former faculty member of the Curtis Institute, died Sunday, Dec. 14, at a Moorestown nursing home of complications from a stroke.
Esteemed for his refined tone, Mr. Stokking joined the orchestra in 1960 and played for six years under Eugene Ormandy before departing to play as principal with the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia.
Upon the chamber group's demise, he played for the Boston Philharmonic and as principal with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell before returning to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1973.
Over the next 22 years, Mr. Stokking, who played a 1743 J.B. Guadagnini cello, earned a reputation as "a central voice in a group of first-chair string players who valued above all the concept of blending their sound," according to Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin. He retired in 2005.
"Bill loved being first chair in Philadelphia," said his wife, Nancy. "It was such a good fit, there was never a question of going anywhere else."
While he loved the whole repertoire, he was particularly fond of the Romantics, she said, and counted as two of his signature pieces the slow cello movement of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 and the lush "Swan" solo in Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals.
She described him as a "real sweet person who loved music and loved people" and who had a "huge sense of humor." When the famously severe Ormandy once complained about the bird-sound recording used in its performance of Respighi's The Pines of Rome, she recalled, her husband amused the other musicians by bringing in a duck call.
"He was the best," said Robert Cafaro, a cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. "He was the absolute master of sound quality, and nobody could touch his eight-bar solos in the orchestral repertoire."
"We all miss him and talk about his style," Cafaro said. "He was more of a magician than a cellist."
A member of the orchestra since 1983, Cafaro said Mr. Stokking "changed my life" as a teenager when he spotted his talent at the Saratoga School of Orchestral Studies and urged him to take private lessons.
He also recalled Mr. Stokking's sense of humor and told of the time when sound engineers designing the new Verizon Hall asked the musicians during a rehearsal to be dead silent as they popped a balloon to test the acoustics.
But the moment the technician popped the balloon, Mr. Stokking "did this sound effect [on the cello] of a dog yelping. Everybody broke up. People still talk about it 20 years later."
A native of Ventnor and a lifelong resident of New Jersey, Mr. Stokking studied with Gregor Piatigorsky at the Curtis Institute of Music and Felix Salmond and Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School of Music.
At the outbreak of the Korean War, he enlisted in the Navy and became solo cellist with the Navy Band and Orchestra, based in Washington.
During his time with the Cleveland Orchestra, he also served on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music and joined the Curtis Institute faculty in 2000.
His hobbies included sailing and powerboating, and he flew his own Beechcraft Musketeer.
The Stokkings founded the Serenade for Wildlife, a major annual fund-raising event for the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford, where he often performed Saint-Saëns' "Swan."
In addition to his wife, Mr. Stokking is survived by sons Carl and Kristoffer; first wife Nancy Perry-Stokking and their daughters, Lisa Lutwyche, Laura, and Lynn; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will likely be held next year, Nancy Stokking said.
Further information and condolences may be left at www.lewisfuneralhomemoorestown.com.
Donations in his memory can be made to the Philadelphia Orchestra or Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge, 6 Sawmill Rd., Medford, NJ 08055.