Graduate of Yale, School of Music at age 14,Kenny had been a composition student of Paul Hindemith.
I first met Merrill Kennth Wolf, M.D.in the mid-fifties. I was playing evidently a first performance of a concerto by on of the lesser “Mannheim” Composers, and he was playing the Brahms Bb Concerto. I hadn’t met him and first heard him rehearsing the Brahms with the Boston Civic, at the time conducted by Paul Cherkassky, a former first violinist with the BSO and the brother of the pianist, Shura Cherkassky.
Mr Cherkassky was not a bad conductor but he had what looked like terminally crossed eyes. For instance, he would look at the double basses and say, “Friedland, you are sharp”. It always completely broke me up.
Anyway, that’s where I first met Kenny. He was a great player, always perfectly prepared and seemed technically capable of playing anything. This was extraordinary because he had extremely short fingers and was in fact, quite small in stature. He had a full beard*, a loud high voice, and upon inquiry I found that he was teaching “Anatomy of the Brain” at Harvard Medical School.
As time went by, I learned more about this growing-up “wunderkind”. Kenny then was listed in the Guinness book of World Record as the youngest graduate of the Yale School of Music, having graduated at age 14. He was of course, terribly bright, but also he was as funny as well., always prepared to be amused, a very happy fellow. He was married to Emily Wolf, herself a scholar as well. There was just the two of them and their many cats, which must have been 4 or 5.
There wasn’t anything that Kenny could not play, for memory. He knew all 32 of the Beethoven Sonatas and would frequently play them at the many parties to which we were both invited, mostly by the Composer John Bavicchi, and we both played around Boston in various chamber concerts usually engineered by Mr. Bavicchi..
Around that time in the late 50s I was hired at Plymouth Sate College of the University of New Hampshire and asked Kenny if he wanted to play a concert with me there, my first and the first of many many concerts we played together for more than ten or 15 years.
In the mid fifties I had a birthday party at my parents apartment in Brookline , (They were in NY) attended by all my musical friends.Kenny and Emily came and he gave me lovely birthday present, a “Bagatelle” for clarinet and piano, written by him and dedicated to me. It was probably one of the first pieces composed for me and it was for me a touching experience, also a very nice little piece, a real “bagatelle”, as it were.
There was a quote from Egmont Overture by Beethoven in the piano, answered by an altissimo response from the clarinet. (That is the first of the Bagatelles in the “recordings ” on this site).
As I learned more about this extraordinary pianist, we became friends and chamber music players for many years. He had studied with Paul Hindemtih at Yale in Composition and had actually also studied with Arthur Schnabel in Germany. When he graduated at that crazy early age, his parents promptly told him that there wold be no further money for music studies, but there would be, for medicine. Kenny studied medicine became a research person , teaching at Harvard, but continuing to play the piano. He was always playing with the MIT orchestra, everything there was to perform by Mozart and Beethoven, all the Concerti, always from memory from the very first rehearsal.My memories from that period were that he simply never made a mistake, never-ever. Yes, he had curious style , which was sometimes shorter, perhaps more choppy than were some other pianists, but an equally high performance standard. He was engaging in actually two careers with equal intensity, music and Medicine, (frankly , I never knew in which order.)
I could call him on a moments notice to play with whatever orchestra I was conducting or for a concert of chamber music and he was always ready to play from the first rehearsal.
Then I decided that I would also learn to play the recorder as I had a fondness for an instrument requiring no real embouchure. I further found out that there were literally tons of music from the Baroque period, about which I knew nothing. But I learned to play the recorder and then learned how to play ornaments and finally I began to divide my recitals at school between Recorder and Clarinet, which I felt at the time was original to say the least. Mostly Kenny would put his Dowd Harpsichord in the back of his car and drive it up to New Hampshire for the concerts.We once played a concert in Freedom New Hampshire, celebrating the first election returns of some year, Freedom being the first place in NH and the US votes in the country to vote.
Then, upon moving to Colorado to teach at Fort Lewis College in Durango, I began requesting Kenny to come and accompany me there. He would also play a concert of music for piano as well. He hated the plane and would always stagger down the stairs of the plane, several “sheets to the wind”, as we say. Sometimes Emily would accompany him , and once she borrowed my wifes Opel and went on a tour of the desert country in the Southwest for several days.
Gradually there got to be more a more bagatelles until finally there were 7 or 8 and we began playing them on concerts, quite successfully. They are decidedly “light” hearted, about twelve minutes long in all, and go very well in a clarinet concert.
Sometimes we would play concerts with music for clarinet and harpsichord, sometimes clarinet and piano, and frequently both. I decided that my recorder playing was ok for the bathroom, (which is where I practiced, just left the thing on a stand there, no reed, no warm-up “just pick it up and play”) but not good enough for prime time, as they say.
That’s how and why the “Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano” were written, and I suppose a lot of program notes on them.
Kenny and I are both much older now, but those years of real fun and music will never be forgotten.
keep practicing, and stay well.
*I remember the Brahms Concerto and Dr. Wolfs full beard. For the performance, he came in clean-shaven. When I asked him why, he replied that his current teacher he famous Madame Vengereva had told him that he must not perform the Brahms Concerto with a beard. I never found out why. I guess she was the kind of teacher one doesn’t question.