In November 2019, I was a panelist at King’s College London, for an event about the conductor Constantin Silvestri. I showed a few minutes from a documentary film I made about the Bournemouth Symphony under Maestro Silvestri’s baton. At the reception after the panel presentation, Mariam Nazarian approached me to talk about Helga Kasimoff. She explained Helga’s importance to the music scene in Los Angeles, her insightfulness about life, and her incredible journey from Germany to California. Mariam wondered if I might be interested in documenting Helga’s stories, possibly as a movie.
Mariam was so enthused about Helga, that I couldn’t help but to be interested in the project. Mariam Nazarian is an extraordinary person in her own right—a concert pianist and producer who made a splash at age 16 when she was the youngest pianist to perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations in Carnegie Hall.
It wasn’t until August 2020 that I had a call with Helga’s son Serge, and then spoke with Helga herself. From these calls and the background given to me by Mariam, it was apparent that Helga is indeed a remarkable woman. She and her family gave me the honor of collecting her stories. Thus began a series of weekly video calls in which Helga recounted her life and I recorded and transcribed her stories. (photo from Helga's German passport)
Helga’s life began in Germany, where she spent many years of her life enduring World War II. Her curiosity and language skills opened the door to travel, first to Europe and then later, the United States where she ended up settling. Helga impressed me with her curiosity about life. An avid reader, she self-studied to learn about Russian history, harpsichord performance, cooking, languages, and anything else that interested her.
Mariam and I first considered making a documentary on Helga’s life. However, films take a great deal of money. For an independent film maker, funding is critical. These days, most funding goes for projects clearly related to social justice. Helga’s life, especially her LA life where she has spent most of her 90 years, is centered on music, and specifically on Blüthner pianos and Neupert harpsichords.
The Kasimoff Family has supplied the film, recording, and concert industries with top-notch instruments. Warner Brother studios, LA Philharmonic, Pasadena Symphony, John Denver, The Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, David Hyde Pierce, Tom Cruise, and others over the years have been her clients—either to rent instruments or purchase them. She also has stories about such characters as Charles Manson, who came into her store to try out a harpsichord, Sammy Davis, Jr. who popped by and ended up chatting with the family for awhile, and Rex DeGeorge, a notorious insurance fraudster who Helga stood up to after he insulted one of her pianos.
After Mariam and I concluded that a film project wasn’t feasible, I agreed to organize Helga’s stories, and lightly edit them for readability. At one point I considered actually writing a biography, but that would require a tremendous amount of research, fact checking, and rewriting. Part of Helga’s charm is the way in which she tells stories. I though it best to keep things in her own words. I organized the transcripts into chapters and added a short introduction to each one.
Today I decided that there is not much more I can do. I once had a music composition teacher, who, when asked how to end a piece, remarked “Draw a double-bar line.” That’s what I am doing on this project. It has been fun and instructive. Now it is time for me to move on.