Remembering Fredell Lack, Virtuoso Violinist and Beloved Professor

Fredell Lack teaching in the 1960s

By Joelle Carson

When Karen McMahon Wilkson (’83, M.M. ’85) first heard Fredell Lack play the violin, she was moved to tears.

“I had no idea that the violin could speak with a human voice,” she said. She knew she had to study with her, even passing up opportunities from the New England Conservatory and later, Juilliard. “There was no choice.”

Wilkson, a member of the Houston Ballet orchestra who is now a violin teacher herself, isn’t unique in her devotion: a beloved professor at the University of Houston and private instructor for more than 50 years, Fredell Lack’s students from around the world strove to keep in touch with their tough but inspiring mentor. Wilkson describes her as “a second mother. She was always either rescuing animals or rescuing people.”

One of those rescue dogs bit off the tip of Lack’s finger at the peak of her career in 1951 — but she re-taught herself to play in a completely different style, and insisted that the dog not be punished. “That’s the powerful, indomitable spirit of Fredell Lack,” Wilkson laughed.

Fredell Lack in 1943

Born in 1922, Lack was six years old when she began studying the violin. As a soloist, she performed with the world’s foremost orchestras and toured Europe more than 20 times. Her recordings are available on five different record labels. She continuously brought the world of music to thousands of students in the Houston area as founder of Young Audiences of Houston, a private instructor, and University of Houston professor.

“I always loved [this] school,” Lack said in a 2013 interview with the Houston Chronicle. “When I had offers to go to other universities, I always turned them down. I said, ‘This is my school.’” Her colleagues and students recognized her passionate commitment, and in 1982, she received the Esther Farfel award — the highest honor accorded to a University faculty member.

One way that passion for music manifests is through philanthropy. Starting in 1982, she founded the Fredell Lack Endowed Chair in Violin, created a discretionary music director’s fund, and tirelessly supported the Moores School of Music throughout its growth into one of the foremost music schools nationwide. Lack witnessed the school’s development from its humble beginnings — she reported that facilities were so limited that she once taught lessons in a women’s bathroom — but the number of students and state resources gradually grew. Now, as state funding for public universities dwindles, private philanthropy plays a larger and larger role in institutional advancement.

Karen Wilkson and Fredell Lack in 2017
Karen Wilkson and Fredell Lack in 2017

Most recently, she fully funded five world-class recital performances in the new Fredell Lack Legacy concert series — organized by Wilkson — that will debut in September 2017 and feature some of Lack’s most accomplished students. They will each spend a week on campus not only onstage, but in the classroom. The 2017-18 season will feature world-renowned performers Maurice Sklar (tickets for his performance on Sunday, September 17, 2017 are available now), Sharman Plesner, Joyce Hammann, Gloria Justen and Eden MacAdam-Somer. “All of these violinists have successfully created careers that are tailor-made to their passion and skills,” explained Wilkson. “It’s vital for students to see what possibilities could be open for their careers.”

As a University of Houston Life Member and longtime student and friend of Fredell Lack, Wilkson sees many parallels between her teacher and her education. “The Moores School of Music was her love, her passion,” she said. “I’m with her on that. My degree is only worth as much as the current graduate. It is a special kind of passion, not just for music, but for people.”

To support the Moores School of Music and other arts initiatives at the University of Houston, contact Julie Anderson-Smith, Senior Director of Advancement at the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts, at 713-743-6878 or


Fredell Lack, Admired Violinist and Teacher, Dies at 95” — New York Times, Aug. 27, 2017
Fredell Lack continues to share her passion for the violin” — Houston Chronicle, Aug. 16, 2013
The Esther Farfel Award — University of Houston