Merrill Kenneth Wolf, 1931-2011

June 30, 2011

Ken Wolf,my friend, accompanist,concert pianist, scientist, physician died several days past. He died in his sleep, but had been quite ill with both Congestive Heart Failure and Kidney failure for the past year. He had been on dialysis for a year, suffering several three and a half hour painful sessions each week, and had been in hospice care at hs home, his only agreeable ingestion being a daily scotch and soda. He has willed his remains to his Medical School Faculty.

Kenny was an incredible presence in the lives of both me and my wife for more than 60 years, as well as the many he taught, performed with and for, and knew and loved him.

I first heard of him from John Bavicchi,Professor of Composition at the Berklee College, composer and friend, who told me that” there is a pianist who can play anything and could do multiples of 5  digits across in his head”. At that time Dr. Wolf was teaching Anatomy of the Brain at Harvard Medical School, while maintaining an active musical career, performing in many of the concerts of contemporary music in Massachusetts. Kenny knew from memory all the music he had ever played, including the complete sonatas for piano of Beethoven and of Mozart, as well as all the Piano Concerti of both of those composers. He could sightread anything and also performed baroque music on the harpsichord, He later enlarged his playing and performing Baroque organ music .

But even before this time, I had read about Kenneth Wolf in Life Magazine, when I was 15 .. There was this boy of 14 or 15 years of age who had just graduated from Yale University with a degree in Music, at that time, the youngest graduate in the history of Yale. He was for a number of years listed in the Guinness Book of records for that distinction.

Kenny was born in Cleveland in 1931, the son of highly educated parents, who were both lawyers. The parents were highly influential in his life, as, after his graduation in Music from Yale, he would be given no more money for tuition in Music, only medicine, and he graduated from Case Western Reserve University when he was 21.

He first demonstrated precociousness at the age of about 16 months.This was the era of the player piano, in which piano rolls were inserted and from the tiny holes placed on the roll,music would emanate. There are many recordings of composers from the turn of the 20th centry and before, whose work was recorded on piano rolls.Ravel and Debussy and many others recorded on piano rolls. The family had such a piano in their home and frequently would play recordings of composers of music for the piano. Once, they left Kenny in the room with the piano and they heard the music of a work by Liszt coming from the piano. It was not a recording. It was their 16 month old son who was playing the piano.(He had spoken in complete sentences  at four months). He had not been given any instruction, just started playing from hearing the work. From that point his parents directed him toward music, specifically the piano,first by his parrents and then culminating  in study with Arthur Schnabel,in Berlin and composition with Paul Hindemith at Yale.

I am a bit cloudy of what transpired in the life, careers, and education of Kenny from that point. Clearly, he was a genius, but there had been some kind of unpleasant ness that had occured between the young man and George Szell, the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.My inference was that Szell had simply written the young pianist “Off” as the saying goes. I simply do not know the details save for the fact that Kenneth Wolf had to pursue a career in medicine, and that he recieved his medical credentials at an extremely early age. I think he was 21, having received his music degee from Yale at age 14.
From then on, he actually pursued the two careers of music and medicine.

I know of his success in both, but also, that he  suffered by the many comments such as, “for  a musician , it is amazing that he is actually a Professor of Anatomy of the Brain at Harvard Medical School”.

I played in many concerts with Kenny as my accompanist, and conducted him in all of the Concerti of Beethoven, the two Brahms Concerti, several of Mozart. In my opinion  Wolf was a great genius regarding all of his many achievements.

I first met Kenny while rehearsing with the Boston Civic Symphony. I was the first clarinetist in that orchestra,Paul Cherkassky of the Boston Symphony was the conductor. The particular program included both a purported first performance of a concerto by Stamitz, with me as soloist and the Brahms D Minor Concerto with Dr. M. Kenneth Wolf as soloist. He came to rehearsals with a full beard, and he was quite short and possessed a high  voice, as I recall. We had no particular reason to communicate. We were on the same program as soloists.

The concert went extremely well . There was only one strange thing. Dr. Wolf played his Brahms without any race of the full beard. He was clean shaven.
I later learned that he had been studying with the famous Madame Vengerova in New York. As he was about to leave for Boston to perform the Brahms with the Boston Civic Symphony, Vengerova forced him to shave off his beard for the reason that he was touring the following summer to many Piano Competitions in Europe. Madame Vengerova suggested that the beard would do him no good, and so he shaved it off for the Brahms Concerto in Boston.

It has been so many years since she passed away and can hurt nothing by saying that Venerova taught at the Curtis Institute for many many years, having some of the most famous pianists and composers as students and is remembered (by those who dare,) as a terrifically egotistical bully of a teacher who was not without talent, but it was the talent of her students, which each brought to her that has remained, not because, but in spite of her.

My days playing music with him, the reminiscences of his playing, both with me and those which I witnessed, the times that Emily, his wife, and Linda, my wife had, will always remain with me as the happiest of my life.The yearly organ concerts in Wentworth, NH, were especially enjoyed by our children who got to drive to New Hampshire, go to the concert, attend the gigantic party after the concert, and then go to Boston in the morning for a few hours of shopping before returning.
Kenny and Emily had bought a house in Wentworth and renovated it for those parties.They used to call it “Wentworth,where their Worth Went”.

Goodbye, Kenny


Reeds, other than cane, philosophy thereof

June 15, 2011

I am frequently asked about synthetic reeds, and always give respones which are quite conclusive, and direct, like yes, no, good,bad, maybe.

However there is an aspect of playng the clarinet that is always left out. And it is left out because it is not  considered pertinent to the question.

We as clarinetists , engage in a certain practice , one that is endlessly repetitious.This takes more time than practice. We try reeds. We try them constantly, sometimes without concern for time or money ,family . As we try them, we are seaching for the response, that respnse, the one that says to the ear and the mind. “maybe”. this one may be able to be fashioned into a playable reed. We put it aside on the mirror or the glass, afraid to try it again because it will always change, softer, harder, tubbier. Oh my, do not try it again. Let it dry. Don’e even look at it. It may change. They all do, don’t they.

Look at the color. Is it greenish? Look at the butt. Is it uneven? Put your forefinger under the right side, then the left. The same?  Who knows? The mind can be boggled just from a few reeds tried utilixing those criteria. Actually, I used to limit myself to trying no more than three or sometimes 5 commercially made reeds at a time. After that amount, it is my strong contention that all your reed sensibilities are used up, and you are in danger of going thrugh the whole box. Have you done that?(……..don’t lie)

How many hours have you spent trying reeds? This comes to mind as I consider playing on reeds made from another material, usually some mixtureof wood and fibre and a bit of plastic , or whatever. These reeds have improved to a point wherein many  play them, or they say they do. (In the history of testimonials for woodwind products including imstruments, ligatures, reeds , cases, humidification devices , neckstraps, and on and on , even before you get to mouthpieces, there is an endless list of testimonials given for many reasons, few if any, being altruistic, meaning that the testimonials are given for a reason,usually payment of some kind or publicity of some kind. (There was a time when Leblanc clarinets were given for prominent testimonials, and many were given.)

But, when an ordinary clarinetist, whether it be student or more or less, tries a plastic or (pardon me) synthetic, the reason is sheer frustration. One cannot find a decent reed made from cane, or one thinks they cannot. (But, isn’t there always someone who has a book or  set of  insructions or a machine which does everything but play LeCoc D’or cadenza while telling you how to fix a reed?)

Going back to synthetic, (pardon me, plastic), if the  first reed you try plays well, why not play it? And contnue to play on it until it just stops dead? Squawk, and that’s the end.

My comment will be to that query is, we cannot, because we must try additional reeds, pick apart the qualities, and then select another, ad infinitum. Where we halt the process has to do with part of the drive for the perfect reed . Do we stop when we have a decent reed? Or do we continue?  Are we afraid of the change as the reed dries out? How many times has that happened to you? And because of the nature of the cane reed, the change can occur at any time, regardless of what technic your years of trying reeds  has given you. I have found over and over, that a good reed “is a sometime thing”, until it settles and you know what you have, both on your mouthpiece and in your case. Now, what do we do when we encounter the synthetic (pardon me, the plastic)? Do we actually know? We are used to trying many reeds. Do we actually know when the process has been satisfied? That is the question, for your shrink or your  mentor, your wife, your advisor, yourself.

Good luck with whatever it is that you have on your mouthpiece and in your case.( One more true story. I had a recital many years ago in Colorado. During the concert, I was forced to change my reed and continue the concert. It was quite successful. A week later, a faculty member who had been in that audience recommended me for a big University position. I received the call, and was told that I had the job, pending the interview, based on the reed-changing concert. Those were happy years, and I turned it down. But, with not an extra reed ready-to-play in my case…..well.) Can you trust it if it is not cane? Or can you make the switch. What about my sound? How was it? Was it in tune?

Keep practicing. It is  but a part of this whole business. I have found throughout the years, that there have been good periods and bad ones for trying reeeds. Try the morning, rested, fed and calm. Will you find more? Less? (To be continued.)

stay well, sherman

Leblanc Dynamic Clarinet

June 5, 2011

Dear Mr. Friedland:

My clarinet is a Leblanc Dynamic 2, and I believe the serial number is 598B. Can you give me any information on it, in regard to its age or worth? Not that I’m planning on selling it, of course, but after not being able to find anything out myself, my curiosity is piqued.

Thanks so much!

Hi Kelly:
thank you for your note about the Leblanc Dynamic 2 clarinet. After virtually a lifetime of playing and trying all manner and make of clarinets,one wonders just what is the difference between this Leblanc Dynamic Clarinet, than other Leblanc Dynamic 1 clarinet and then , well, just the whole rubric of clarinets, mostly those which have mainly interested players in the United State, and Canada and of course, Europe.

But here, we come upon the key word in an assessment of either a particular clarinet with its name and other characteristics. This word is rubric which is of course, used by the academy for instance, to discern between differences. If we distinguish between those clarinets with a common name like Leblanc, or Buffet, Selmer, and Yamaha, we are then asked to discern between each of them, and then we further separate them by what particular year in which they were made. And then, by any number of criteria concerning each manufacturer. As we begin to analyze, we realize that there are endless possibilities.

These are generally the considerations by many clarinetists. (Do they make any difference? No.) Leblanc is one of the best made highly regarded clarinets, specifically, all models made in France. The dynamic, both models or all models, including the so-called Pete Fountain model, which I consider the best has a slightly wider bore than other clarinets and is most similar to the Selmer Centered Tone clarinet, both of which are frequently called big bore,or clarinets made for jazz playing. No, not true. They were made for sale, made very well, made for a highly competitive market with a limited clientele. I played a set of Centered Tone clarinets when I played principal in the Milwaukee Symphony, and since then have played many if not most Leblanc clarinets which in my opinion, have a more compact scale and are in better tuning. These have included Opus, Sonata, Leblanc LL, L7, several other L models with numbers (which escape memory) It is a great instrument, a great deal of pleasure to play and as well made as any other fine French clarinet. Although I was a clinician for Selmer for many years, I still felt the Leblanc is better for reasons outlined above.

The major clarinet names are generally very consistent from one to another. Differences can be discerned of course, upon closer inspection, different playing styles, mouthpieces,and on and on. The Leblanc brand as such in the US ,suffered during the years because of very poor direction, a resulting in a terrible and undeserved reputation.
Because there were always Leblancs unsold in music stores, I was able to pick and choose from all available models and try them for as long as I desired. I played many concerts of chamber music with them, resulting in my opinion, probably as good as anyone elses.

We could go into the latest craze, the added bell and/or barrel made from hard rubber or another more beautiful looking wood. Weird. How does one discern between the result of one wood from another unless one can try all simultaneously? Like comparing orchestras, it cannot be done. Here comes the conclusion to this posting : it comes down to a matter of opinion, and then the advertising, the paid-off players who have been given free samples to try.
Kelly,I hope you like your Dynamic Leblanc,I think it is a fine instrument. Enjoy it always,
best ,