Katims was music director of the SSO from 1954 to 1976, transforming a part-time, floundering ensemble, which was operating on a budget of less than $200,000, into one of the region's most respected orchestras.
Gerard Schwarz, currently the Seattle Symphony's music director, told the Times, "Our orchestra could not be where it is today were it not for Milton's tremendous accomplishments during his 22-year tenure as music director. His musical gifts were extraordinary as an educator, orchestra musician, chamber musician, soloist, and conductor. Milton transformed the Seattle Symphony during his tenure as our music director and was instrumental in the growth of our city into an important cultural center."
Katims was born in New York City to Russian-Hungarian parents and was educated at Columbia. He was a talented violinist and violist as a boy; later, he played viola with ensembles such as the Budapest String Quartet and edited viola music. He was also principal violist of the NBC Symphony, where Arturo Toscanini encouraged his interest in conducting. In 1947 Katims became assistant conductor of the NBC Symphony, launching a conducting career that would take him across America and to Israel and Japan.
Katims guest-conducted a number of prestigious orchestras over the years, including the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony, London Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, and Montreal Symphony.
His New York contacts stood him in good stead in Seattle, where he was able to lure top soloists such as Issac Stern. He also had a talent for spotting emerging talent, bringing then unknowns such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Horacio Gutierrez to Seattle.
He vastly increased the Seattle Symphony's repertory, did frequent premieres, expanded family programs, and staged concert versions of 20th-century operas such as Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. He also played a major role in converting the city's Civic Auditorium into the Opera House.
His accomplishments did not guarantee him an easy tenure in Seattle however; in the mid-1970s trustees, musicians, and audiences began to complain about his musical tastes and leadership style. Katims and his followers put up a strong defense, but he was ousted at the end of the 1976 season.
He moved to Texas after being appointed artistic director at the University of Houston's school of music, where he remained for eight years. He returned to Seattle to retire.