Dr Ken Wolf – in memoriam

Friday, Oct. 21st 2011

It was with great sadness that we learned of the loss of our long-time friend and music colleague Dr. Merrill Kenneth (“Kenny”) Wolf.  Dr. Wolf died June 27 2011 of congestive heart failure and renal failure in his Berlin, Mass. home.  He was 79.  Much information is available heralding his medical and research accomplishments, but little has been revealed about his musical endeavors.

Born in Cleveland (1931) to very supportive parents, Kenny was a child prodigy pianist by the age of 2, with public performances by age 5 and composed a symphony at age 8.  Life Magazine featured him on the cover as the “Yale Prodigy” multi-talented whiz-kid who at the time held the Guinness World Record for being the youngest college graduate ever at age 14.  He chose Yale because he wanted to study composition with Paul Hindemith, but initially had been rejected for admission to Yale based on his young age.  His compositions during his college years were avant-garde, but Kenny’s piano repertoire was centered in the classics.  After graduating, he realized that a career as a concert pianist (as excellent a performer as he was) was not the best strategy because he felt he had small hands that wouldn’t accommodate the wide-reach demands of virtuosic repertoire.  He turned to the study of medicine and blossomed as a neuro-anatomist. He was known internationally for his research on central nervous system myelination and he was a founding professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, from which he retired in 2008 as a professor emeritus.

Kenny did not abandon music, however—he refined his performance skills in piano, harpsichord, and pipe organ, not to mention a great interest in music history and musicology.  It was while performing a piano concert at Radcliffe College he met his wife Emily of 52 years.

He was fascinated by, and a scholar of, the German organist and composer Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) because of his musical inventiveness and harmonic richness, and he played all 20 of the existing organ sonatas (Rheinberger died before completing the cycle of 24, one in each major and minor key).

Spending summers in Wentworth, NH, he began an annual concert series in 1973 at the Wentworth Congregational Church (on the common) continuing for about 35 years (he had to repeat some of the Rheinberger sonatas, one each concert!), with a private reception following at his and Emily’s summer home there.  During that period he supported the maintenance of the instrument (Hook II/7, 1878, Op 909, originally in Trinity Church, Bristol RI)  by Bob Newton of Andover which included some minor tonal revisions to make the instrument brighter.   The instrument had been damaged in 1972 by a major leak during roof repairs, and there had been considerable discussion suggesting disposal of the Hook (it was essentially totaled by the water damage). Kenny was a major voice in convincing the church to have it repaired;  otherwise it likely would have been scrapped.  The initial concert of the Wentworth Summer Series was the inaugural concert for the restored instrument and unknown at the time, this was Kenny’s first public organ performance.  Because he had been an accomplished piano keyboard performer, his first performances at the organ console had him concentrating on his feet (he had the music memorized).  He had had only two organ lessons in his lifetime, and those were in Washington DC while he was there working at the NIH.

They sold their house and left behind Wentworth once a neighboring lumber mill came to town that he felt disturbed the peaceful nature of the community.  However, he continued for several years to present annual recitals to an appreciative audience, most always from memory.  Lois Regestein continued the tradition in subsequent concerts there.

In 1989, Kenny presented a series of piano recitals at his Berlin residence’s music room to celebrate the 150th birth year of Rheinberger.  In addition, he gave an organ recital at the First Congregational Church in Boylston, Mass. (at that period in time, the church was unlocked, so he frequently practiced there). His verbal program notes were detailed and enthusiastic, and his musical performances connected with his audiences.  He was a member of the American Guild of organists for many years and a strong supporter of organ concerts in the Central Mass. region.

One of his organ compositions (written for the 25th anniversary concert in the Wentworth series) was performed at the Worcester 1999 regional convention at All Saints Church by Tom Murray: “Variations on Wentworth” (fondly dedicated to his previous summer home in New Hampshire, with the subtitle “… or some fun with Wentworth”). He wrote two piano sonatas (also playable on harpsichord), one of which was premièred by the late concert pianist Theodore Lettvin on his concert tours.  The second sonata was a birthday present to Emily.

Although Dr. Wolf might have appeared intimidating from afar, he was warm and engaging in conversation, and intensely enthusiastic in conversations regarding his many interests.  He was well read and highly cultured.

We will miss this brilliant man and dear colleague.

A Celebration of Life gathering was held  November 3 at UMass Medical School. Remembrances will be offered by Tom Murray and colleagues at U Mass along with a video of his last house concert from Aug 2010 where he performed the last movement of Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat K.333.

Lois Toeppner, Tom Murray, John Skelton, and Emily Wolf at the U Mass tribute.