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Charles Rosen, why didn’t I think of saying it like that?


Charles Rosen, pianist, author, keen observer

While hunting for the answer to a thorny question of Beethoven interpretation (still hunting, I hope to discuss the answer in a future post) I came across a book given to me as a gift, which I’d not yet read. This was Charles Rosen’s (1927-2012) Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist. I opened it to a random page and immediately met a sympathetic new friend.

Rosen has a style that is spare without being dry, and warm without trying too hard to win you over. In witty, dispassionate prose, he observes things about the music world that make one think: “That’s how I feel, exactly! How come I never put it like that?”

It’s a slim volume that doesn’t waste words. Here are just two potent observations, with which I heartily agree: 1. music conservatories train for contests, and contests tend to create artificial situations which don’t reward individuality; and 2. “Pianists should, in the best of all possible worlds, play only the music they love and — this should carry equal weight — to which they think they can bring an interpretation that is deeply personal.”

Mr. Rosen also addresses the practical concerns that we pianists are almost afraid to bring up, for fear of being considered nutty. One such problem: pianos that look fine from the outside but whose innards are in bad shape. I have often arrived at a venue to rehearse for a performance, to find the piano in poor regulation (meaning that the action of each key responds differently to the same touch) or with uneven voicing of the piano hammers (meaning that one key or set of keys blast out too loud, or whisper too dully, in comparison to its neighbors.)

In one instance, I was so upset by the piano’s condition — a prestige-name instrument in a well-known hall — that I insisted to the management that they call the piano technician in right away. I had a long list of things that needed to be fixed. Later, I heard through the grapevine that the management, who were not themselves musicians, decided I must be crazy because some other well-regarded pianist had just played there and didn’t complain a bit!

Here is Charles Rosen, in Piano Notes, describing my situation:

“Busoni once said that there are no bad pianos, only bad pianists. That may be true enough, but a defective piano takes away much of the delight of the performer, and for the proper functioning of the world of music, the musicians should derive as much pleasure as the public. What is more troubling for pianists to face is the fact that many of the irregularities that bother us are largely impreceptible to an audience, which does not consciously realize that one note lacks brilliance and another is too harsh. Moreover, a note in which one of the strings is slightly out of tune makes a less agreeable sound, and the audience is more apt to think that the pianist is insensible to tone quality than to understand that one of the unisons is flat.”

Next time I encounter a bad piano problem, I’ll make sure to have these comments from Piano Notes ready. No one could argue with such logic, presented in such a disarming way.


Chopin’s Budget, Our Gain

Fryderyk Chopin at 25, painted by 16-year-old Maria Wodzinska

Whenever money matters weigh you down, it might help to remember that financial constraints sometimes produce unexpected treasures. Consider Chopin. Because of his chronic pulmonary disease and lack of stamina, Chopin didn’t have the lucrative concert career that his friend Franz Liszt enjoyed. Even though the musical world of the 1830′s and 40′s acknowledged Chopin’s genius, and even though his every new composition was eagerly awaited and successfully published, their sale did not support his elegant lifestyle. But being a sought-after teacher of the talented aristocracy did.

Chopin came from a pedagogical lineage — his own father was a French teacher in Warsaw. When he wasn’t composing, Chopin devoted much of his time, especially during the winter months, to teaching private piano lessons. He was a teacher of great influence, although many of his pupils were women of the nobility and thus never allowed to appear on the concert stage; only about 20 of his students went on to have professional careers. He saw teaching as a calling, which his student Mikuli described in this way: “Chopin daily devoted his entire energies to teaching for several hours and with genuine delight…Was not the severity, not so easy to satisfy, the feverish vehemence with which he sought to raise his pupils to his own standpoint, the ceaseless repetition of a passage till it was understood, a guarantee that he had the progress of the pupil at heart? A holy artistic zeal burnt in him the, every word from his lips was stimulating and inspiring.”

And this, from his pupil Maria von Harder (no relation): “Chopin was a born teacher, expression and conception, position of the hand, touch, pedalling, nothing escaped the sharpness of his hearing and his vision; he gave every detail the keenest attention. Entirely absorbed in his task, during the lesson he would be solely a teacher, and nothing but a teacher.”

How fortunate for us Chopin devotees that Chopin had so many devoted disciples. As a true artist, he never got around to committing his teaching method to paper in some dry and dusty text (despite all good intentions, he preferred to compose the Fantasie-Impromptu instead.) It is mainly through his pupils’ and contemporaries’ letters, remembrances, writings, diaries and even the scores annotated by Chopin himself, that we know important facts about the way he played his own compositions and how he preferred them to be played.

An absolutely indispensable reference for Chopin interpretation can be found in a single book, which I’ve used as a pianistic Bible for many years. This is Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin: pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils, published by Cambridge University Press. In one streamlined volume, Eigeldinger painstakingly compiles these primary sources and presents them in a clear and readable form. He shows, through the pupils’ words and their annotated scores of specific compositions, how Chopin approached fingering (of paramount importance to him,) pedalling, phrasing, other aspects of technique, timing, and overall musical style. Originally published in 1970 in French, no other book has come along to supplant Eigeldinger’s work, and probably never will. This volume is one that should never go out of print.

Had Chopin not been sickly, had he made a fortune giving concerts like Liszt or any of his other virtuoso contemporaries, he likely would not have taught so much during his short life. His students would not have passed on his pedagogical pearls of wisdom to future generations. But he did teach, and we are enriched immeasurably by these pearls. That, to me, is a silver-lining playbook of the most priceless kind.



A Civil War Christmas has meaning for our time

Mary Todd Lincoln comforts a dying soldier in A Civil War Christmas

Behind a plain door on a narrow street in Greenwich Village, far from the glitter of Steven Speilberg’s Hollywood, my family and I watched Paula Vogel’s imaginative and lyrical play A Civil War Christmas unfold on a bare-bones stage. I sat down to enjoy a drama. I did not expect to be almost immediately moved to tears. What got me going, I realized, was the play’s masterful use of music.

The story is set on Christmas Eve, 1864, a few weeks before Lincoln’s second inauguration. The multiple story lines follow the lives of some pretty interesting characters in and around a turbulent and frost-bitten Washington, D.C. — fictional and historical, children and grown-ups, black and white, Jews and Christians, and even a couple of animals. (The talented cast of 11 play multiple roles.)

Their concerns are both lofty and simple: Abraham Lincoln wants to finalize a war and heal a shattered nation, and at the same time personally retrieve a forgotten Christmas present for his wife. Mary Todd Lincoln visits the wounded soldiers and tries to forget her own torments, and also wants to make the White House more festive with a Christmas tree, not an easily procured item in war-besieged D.C. A slave wants to get her child to safety and freedom. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who has bought her own freedom through her sewing and design talent, wants to overcome the guilt she feels over her son’s death in battle. A Confederate boy wants glory. A dying Jewish soldier wants to see his mentor Walt Whitman once more. Perhaps the most powerful character, a black Union sergeant called Bronson, wants to revenge the abduction of his wife by Confederate soldiers. He vows to “take no prisoners.”

What binds these disparate stories together is the interjection of traditional carols, hymns, spirituals and popular song of the time, in arrangements by Daryl Waters and keenly directed from the keyboard by Andrew Resnick. Sometimes dancing, sometimes accompanying themselves on the banjo, accordion and fiddle, the actors harmonize”God Rest Ye Merry Gentelemn,” “Silent Night,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Oh, Christmas Tree.”   The spirituals “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Ain’t That a Rocking,” and “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” are powerfully delivered.

At the play’s climax, when Bronson spares the life of a Confederate child-soldier in an ingenious way, the melodious Longfellow carol, “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with its message of “peace on earth, good will toward men” takes on new meaning. In light of the slaughter of young innocents in Connecticut just a week earlier, it was especially haunting.

A Civil War Christmas may never receive the publicity or audience numbers of Spielberg’s highly touted Lincoln, but it deserves to. I would like to see it performed every holiday season like The Nutcracker or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a part of our cultural tradition and dialogue, its drama and music passed with care from one generation to the next.

The Tempest, Imagined and Real

Audrey Luna's Ariel, spirit and singer extraordinaire

Despite distant warnings about a hurricane coming our way, Tom and I went ahead with our plans to celebrate our 27th — yes, 27th! — wedding anniversary in New York City. One of the highlights of our trip was taking in a new production put on by the Metropolitan Opera, The Tempest, composed and conducted by Brit Thomas Adès.

What we experienced was a visual treat, with sets, special effects, and costumes that borrow cleverly from pop culture. To depict the tempest at sea, a large gold chandelier descends from the ceiling, inexorably spinning. Hanging upside-down, Ariel, clad in a skin-tight sparkly leotard, twines around the chandelier like an acrobat from Cirque du Soleil. Harry Potter-like effects appear in the form of moving portraits (depicting Prospero’s traitorous brother and henchmen) and video images effectively show the wilderness that the shipwrecked passengers must wander through. The costumes, designed by Kym Barrett, are some of the most luscious I have ever seen, and flatter even the heftiest sopranos and tenors of the chorus.

Thomas Adès score, however, borrows not one eighth note from pop culture. It is angular and dissonant, with propulsive, square rhythms and no particularly hummable melody. Still, the orchestration and vocal balance he achieves is always effective. Some of the singing, in particular colaratura Audrey Luna’s Ariel and mezzo Isabel Leonard’s Miranda, is astounding.

What drives the work forward to its satisfying conclusion is Adès and librettist Meredith Oakes’ understanding of Shakespeare’s final play. They elucidate the Bard’s themes portrayed in his complex protagonist Prospero: the oppressed becoming the oppressor, the destructive nature of revenge, the power of love to transform and unite, the ultimate power of forgiveness. Modern production values and videography aside, relying on good old Shakesperare to provide the framework for a new work that will last — it’s a smart bet.

The next day, we decided to forego our reservation at Becco, one of our favorite restaurants. This real-life tempest was really going to happen, it seemed. Three hours later, the city closed its trains and subways. Eight hours later, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey, and us too, and unlike Shakespeare, we could conjure up no Ariel to clean up the mess.

But today, finally, the sun is shining. The storm of election battles is over. I wouldn’t mind singing about that.


Music for the Memory of a Cherished Friend

Ginny Fry, Poet, Painter and Beloved Friend

Over the years, friends have asked me to play for their weddings, birthday celebrations, at Christmas parties and New Year’s. A few weeks ago, one of my dearest friends made a request that I didn’t want to hear.

“Would you play at my funeral?” she asked. “Because there will be a funeral.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, yet cheerful, as if she found the prospect of dying mildly absurd. She added, sounding almost bemused, “My daughter insists there be a service, to honor her mother.”

Up until that point, we had all been denying that a funeral was anywhere in the works. But eventually Stage 4 breast cancer wears one down. Even though I wasn’t ready to accept her acceptance of the inevitable, I said, “Of course I’ll play, you don’t even need to ask.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said, obviously relieved. ”Because if you don’t, there’s just bound to be hymns and a Presbyterian choir group.”

Much as I wanted to disbelieve she was giving up the fight, I know now that with that request she was preparing me. Ginny passed away two weeks ago, on a glorious September morning, at home, with her children by her side.

Yes, she was a soprano in the church choir, and sang all the hymns, but she’d grown up in the Twin Cities, in the 40’s, listening to her accomplished amateur pianist mother practice for hours. Ginny was a painter and a poet. Hymns alone wouldn’t do.

In choosing what to play for her service tomorrow, I’ve decided on late Beethoven (the Opus 109 Sonata – which is a miracle of profundity and grace.) Two Etudes –the Aeolian Harp by Chopin and “Un sospiro” by Liszt, which Ginny would have likely heard her mother play. The brilliant, melodious runs that soar and cascade through both pieces make me think of what Ginny said was her great joy as a child, which was to strap on ice skates and fly across the frozen Minnesota lakes ”like the wind.”

Finally, before the organist begins his Prelude, I will play Debussy’s “Clair de lune.” It is not funereal. It is a romantic, wistful piece, which evokes all the colors and lyricism that Ginny loved to create in her own art. It is tender, too, like her unconditional love for so many people.

My father told me that his father was the lead funeral singer in their village, when the area around Seoul, Korea, was still a rural, agragrian place, long before the Korean War, when whole villages came out to mourn the passing of a member of the community. Tomorrow I will be carrying on the tradition of my grandfather. To comfort the grieving and light the memory of a loved one – I can think of no greater honor that music serves.

I’ll have the tissues ready, though Ginny would want us to hug, sing and laugh.




A precious key to the past — Marston Records

Ward Marston, jazz pianist and re-masterer extraordinaire

One of the joys of bopping around the music world is meeting extraordinary people who tend to wander into your life, quite by accident. Last week, I attended a surprise party for Vera Wilson, the dynamic founder and president of Astral Artists, to celebrate her 70th birthday. During the preliminary half-hour that guests milled and chatted, waiting for the guest of honor to appear, my ear was drawn to the music emanating from the far end of the room. A tall man in a powder blue blazer sat at a small old grand piano and played lush, full, and complex solo jazz. Without the benefit of a bass player or drummer, this pianist made his arrangements sound complete. It was a glorious way to start the party.

When Vera arrived, she was happily surprised, and a chamber music concert (trios performed to honor her, played by Alex Moutouzkine, piano, Benjamin Beilman, violin, and Clancy Newman, cello) was sublime. Afterward, I sought out the pianist in powder blue, who, I now noticed, lacked the faculty of eyesight.

“That was super playing,” I said. “How did you learn to play jazz like that?”

“I never took a jazz lesson in my life,” he said, smiling and turning toward me. “I listened to records of all the greats -– Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson. That’s how I learned.”

When I inquired if he played in clubs anywhere in the area, hoping I could hear him sometime, he said that his career for the past several years had taken a new direction.

“I’ve collected about 30,000 historical 78 rp.m vinyl records and I remaster them – mostly operatic singers and pianists.”

He added, matter-of-factly, “I won a Grammy for re-mastering the complete Rachmaninov recordings, for BMG.”

I was floored. “That recording is like my Bible.”

It turned out this was Ward Marston of Marston Records, whose mission it is to digitally re-master rare recordings of great musicians, long dead, in order to preserve their interpretation, the details of their technique, their sound, their timing, their voice. Being able to listen and study recordings like these is like having a link to an era of pianists who may have known or worked with the legendary composers themselves. It is like having a key to the door of a past, precious world.

At home, I perused the Marston Record catalog online and have decided that my first purchase will be a 2-CD set of a pianist called Raoul von Koczalski. I had never heard of Koczalski, but he was a student of Karl Mikuli, who was himself a student of Chopin’s. Mikuli’s edition of the complete piano works of Chopin is still published by G. Schirmer, and was the edition that my own teacher, Earl Wild, preferred.

Will hearing Koczalski give me insight into the way Chopin himself may have played or taught? I’m sure it will. I’m sure it will inspire me. I can’t wait to be happily surprised.



Not BB King, but Imperial Just the Same

Li'l Ed and the Blues Imperials

The tony Charles Hotel at Harvard Square is not where you might expect to clap your hands and shake your hips to a fantastic blues band, but that’s exactly what happened last Saturday night when Chicago-based Li’L Ed and the Blues Imperials played the swanky Regattabar at the Charles. This gal who loves J.S. Bach was there and loved it.

Yes, Li’l Ed is on the short side, but there is nothing diminutive about the way he plays the slide guitar. Dressed in long puffed sleeves and a pink-and-blue fez, which added several inches to his height, Li’l Ed’s guitar solos smoked – not so much with speed, but with expressive vibrato and slide effects that any violinist would envy. He was backed up by his tall, white-haired counterpart Michael Garret, whose own electric guitar playing alternated between wild, loose-wristed strumming to fast finger-picking solos. They were expertly supported by the expansive James “Pookie” Young on bass and drummer Kelly Littleton. The guys all sang in-tune and perfectly in sync. Another effect much appreciated by my tender ears: the Regattabar’s sound engineer amplified the music so that it was dynamic and clearly present but never distorted.

The Blues Imperials are masters of programming – switching from up-tempo, swing, rhythm and blues numbers to down and dirty Chicago Blues, with interesting key relationships between the numbers.  They played full-out for over an hour-and-a half without a break, but every moment was fully engaged and engaging. People drank, danced in the aisles, felt free to get up to go to the bathroom, tapped their toes, and had a good old time. Nobody sat still or fell asleep.

Hmm, we classical cats could learn a thing or two.


The music of silence — listen, Narberth

Silence is what we want sometimes. Silence is musical.

A few weeks ago Tom and I and our friends Ulf and Cole attended the July 4 fireworks celebration in nearby Narberth Park. As darkness fell, thousands of people crowded the park and Windsor Avenue. Teenagers love to hang out in Narberth, so there was a lot of youthful shouting, sweat, and laughter. Pop music blared, loudly yet un-clearly, over the amplifiers with an insistent beat.

A trained operatic tenor sang the national anthem to enthusiastic applause, and then the show began. A tremendous burst of gold, followed by white, followed by purple and red, lit the night sky. The borough spared no expense in providing a generous pyrotechnic show.

But as the dazzling spectacle filled the air, as each crackle and cannon-like boom of the next shell faded, darn if that distorted P.A. system didn’t continue to natter out tunes, never turning off, pumping away on its own track, completely oblivious to the majestic visual display, and out of sync with the music of the fireworks explosions. To me, there is a wonderful sense of anticipation in the silence that separates each shell before it is set off. But we never got that suspenseful silence, that restful moment for our ears before the next crackle, whine and explosion. It was as if the celebration that marked the birth of our nation was playing second fiddle to the familiar strains one hears in a T-shirt store.

Next year, the borough fathers and mothers ought to orchestrate their fireworks show so that the P.A. system is turned off during the pyrotechnic display. They can trust that the music of silence will accompany the music of fireworks to perfection.


To Be a Judge

I have mixed feelings about competitions. When asked to judge them, I usually decline. After all, a musical performance shouldn’t be an athletic event, with points to be won or lost, winner take all. Yo-Yo Ma, in Harvard Magazine, has declared, “Are you kidding? I lost every competition, except once when I was five. Today, I won’t even be a judge. I’m against them.”

That said, when the Tri-County Concert Association asked me to help judge their latest competition, I agreed, because I feel that Tri-County, through their long-standing concert series, does try to help serious young artists in a meaningful way. I asked to judge the “junior” or middle-school division as the timing of that category fit into my schedule, even though I assumed the repertoire would be less interesting than that played by the senior division the week before.

I arrived on a Saturday morning in April at the charming venue of Eastern University. The competition was held in the office of the chairman of the music department, in a stone mansion with windows that overlook ancient trees and manicured lawns. One by one the thirty or so contestants, all in grades 6 through 8, entered right on time (the competition is extremely well-organized,) sat at the old piano in the corner and performed their selected seven-minute piece from memory.

There indeed was an early Haydn sonata, and a few pieces which one would think of as “intermediate” repertoire, but most of what I heard could have easily belonged on a serious recital program in a professional concert hall: several Chopin Scherzi, Liszt Etudes, a middle Beethoven Sonata. At the end of a long day of judging, my co-judge Ken Borrmann and I agreed that four of the young pianists deserved honors, and that the top two were nearly tied. The two winners we chose performed Prokofiev’s Third Sonata and Liszt’s Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli, respectively.

Both winners demonstrated extremely clean playing of brilliant, highly demanding technical passages, tonal control through chord balance and dynamics, excellent sense of tempo and pacing, and overall conviction of performance – in short, these young musicians played with authority.

That is not to say that the two honorable mentions and a number of the other contestants did not also play beautifully and with conviction. Some of them may have even demonstrated a greater musical understanding or depth of expression than the chosen winners. It’s just that at that particular time, with a single piece on the line, the winners sounded most polished, and made the strongest statement.

I hope that just because they did not win first or second prize, none of the other pianists felt they were lesser musicians or were discouraged in any way. I hope that our positive critiques on their judging sheets were enough to dispel any feeling of disappointment at not winning.

Competitions are limited in their ability to rank talent, and are certainly limited in predicting the longevity of musical careers. As long as they are put in perspective by students (and by their parents!) they can be useful tools for polishing and performing a piece in a high-pressure situation. They should be viewed as a learning opportunity, not a final judgment.

During one of our breaks, I was chatting with my co-judge, and learned that Ken, besides being a professor of music, is also an expert rose grower. He told me to what great lengths he must go to produce champion specimens, and how carefully he must transport a prized blossom to a rosarian event. He has won top honors in regional rose shows, and at the national level as well, and has even gotten his young sons involved in helping him grow and present these horticultural winners.

As he told me with a quiet smile, “I’m competitive.”


Meeting Christoph Wolff: aka “Mr. Bach”

Lunch with Christoph Wolff, renowned Bach scholar

One of the most endearing things about my father is that, at age 82, he remains a culture hound, just like me. Having retired to Orlando, Florida, he still sniffs out interesting cultural events within driving distance, and sets out to explore. When I visited him and my mom in February, we took in the HD simulcast of Gustavo Dudamel conducting a tremendous performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the L.A. Phil and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela. We also met, quite unexpectedly, one of my heroes of modern musical scholarship, Christoph Wolff.

Wolff’s tome on the life and work of J.S. Bach, Bach: The Learned Musician, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and one of the best books on classical music ever written. Impeccably researched, it reveals a portrait of Bach the teacher, the performer, the father, and husband that complete our understanding of Bach the genius. I have read passages from Wolff’s book aloud to my own husband that I knew would interest him, such as the fact that Bach’s salary often included kegs of beer.

A native of Heidelburg, Christoph Wolff is a professor at Harvard and director of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, Germany. That I met him while visiting the Land of the Mouse is due entirely to my father’s interest in the Bach Festival held at Winter Park, Florida at Rollins College each year. For the Bach Festival Society’s 75th anniversary, Christoph Wolff was visiting scholar and guest of honor, and it so happened that the opening weekend of the festival coincided with my visit to Central Florida.

My parents and I set off for Rollins College to attend the festival’s Sunday morning service at the campus chapel. I was charmed to see that Professor Wolff, who commented on the Bach Cantata that the college choir sang (“Was Gott tut is wohlgetan” — “What God does is well done”) was unpretentiously dressed, in rumpled khakis and navy blazer.  Later, at the informal Lunch and Learn session, he kindly acceded to sitting with this boisterous fan (me) and talked about his work —  he likes to take care of office matters, e-mails, and correspondence in the morning, and then settles down to write, often late into the night. The book he just finished is about Mozart’s last years, and discusses how the increasing complexity of Mozart’s work was abruptly cut short by his untimely death.

Following lunch, Wolff answered questions off-the-cuff in a panel discussion, joined by John Sinclair, artistic director of the festival, and emceed by the eloquent Terry Teachout, playwright, critic, biographer, and blogger. A more congenial group of three discussing a more fabled musician cannot be imagined. (A full transcript I made of their talk may be posted later on this blog.)

In the meantime, here are a few details from their conversation that taught me new things about Bach:

• Contrary to his reputation nowadays as being somewhat resistant to newer styles, Bach was well-versed in the latest instrument technology of his day — the modern organ, the early pianoforte. His close friend and colleague at the St. Thomas School, Johann Winckler, was involved with electrical experiments. Bach felt that understanding technology and science helped him to understand God.

• He did like to show off at the keyboard. For instance, the harpsichord cadenza of the 5th Brandenburg Concerto is way out-of-proportion to the rest of the piece. It’s a 72-measure cadenza! (A normal long cadenza would have been 15 measures.)

• Out of Bach’s 20 chldren, only 9 survived. (Women had 1 child a year back then: Mozart’s wife had 6 children, and only 2 survived.) Child mortality was great, and people experienced the heights of joy juxtaposed with sorrow all the time. Bach knew sorrow early on (he lost his own parents when he was 10.) He was one of the few who could translate this deep feeling into great art.

• Bach’s work contains lots of dark points, but they’re always balanced. Modern listeners may only hear the “burial” at the end of the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, forgetting that in Bach’s day they were followed on Easter morning with the sound of trumpets announcing the Resurrection.

Mom and Dad and I left Rollins College that afternoon enlightened and happy. We were reminded of the morning’s message at the college chapel, given by the lovely Dean Powers, who said that great art “should not simply envelop us, but reach inside and transform us.”


My dad with Professor Wolff