Alison Dalton

Born in Rochester, New York, to parents who met in their college production of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Alison Dalton is happiest when bringing musical masterpieces to life. Her father, a viola pedagogue, prepared her for her debut at the age of 12 with the Utah Symphony and for further studies with her mentor Henri Temianka. She was loaned an Amati violin by the Colburn Foundation, and was 16 when Ivan Galamian accepted her as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

After graduation, Dalton participated in Nathan Milstein’s Zurich master classes and soon became principal second violin in the Austrian Radio Orchestra. With her colleagues, she performed Haydn’s 68 string quartets in his patron’s palace; premiered Berio’s violin duets live-on-air; presented new music at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; partnered with Stéphane Grappelli in concert; and played concert tours, several behind the Iron Curtain. Her musical skills notwithstanding, Dalton was barred by citizenship and gender from securing a position in any European orchestra she preferred. Instead, she earned her master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, working with coaches Glenn Dicterow, David Arben and Shmuel Ashkenasi, and taking first prize in the Vincent de Frank Competition.

Bartók is Dalton’s favorite classical composer for the visceral effect his music can have on a listener. She studied Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto with dedicatee Zoltán Székely and, in 1987, played the work at her CSO audition for Sir Georg Solti who offered her a position in the second violin section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and later appointed her to the first violins in 1989, the year she started her family of five children.

Dalton met her 1707 Grancino violin at the stage door in Munich, Germany, where an enterprising instrument dealer had stationed himself to lure CSO violinists into acquiring his Old Italians. She feels fortunate to bring the warm tone of this beautifully preserved artifact to audiences and acoustical spaces such as her Sydney Opera House recital, lunchroom youth-orchestra sectionals, ballroom concerts in Orchestra Hall and a Chicago arts commercial staged on a pickup truck in winter.

After thousands of concerts and a bout with cancer, Dalton experienced a scotoma in her central field of vision. In 2013, this persistent white dot suddenly brightened during a rehearsal, disrupting the flow of her rapid note reading. While on medical leave, she chased a diagnosis, worked with scientists devising a unique computerized adaptation for sheet music display and began training her eyes to compensate for the scotoma by focusing around it.

Dalton, in professional limbo, stayed physically fit, practiced Bach’s music and followed magnified scores during live performances. After hearing an austere recording on WFMT of violinist Lucy van Dahl, a baroque specialist, Dalton was able to attend van Dahl’s studio classes in her Dutch castle retreat. This beloved, uncompromising master not only immersed Dalton in an exquisite art form but also instilled in her a renewed reverence for music and the determination to return to her career with integrity.

Experience teaches that a musical vocation is fragile. Alison Dalton is grateful for the support of the CSOA and her coworkers, and for our patrons’ enduring devotion to live music. She retired from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2023.