Helga Kasimoff at 88: Still in fine tune

| October 3, 2019 | 1 Comment

CITY’S OLDEST piano store, Kasimoff-Blüthner Piano Co., was founded by Helga Kasimoff and her late husband, Bill.
Photo by Bill Devlin

Helga Kasimoff calls this — her 88th year — “my piano year,” after the instrument’s 88 black-and-white keys.

Her favorite piano is a concert grand in her Kasimoff-Blüthner Piano Co. showroom. It was played at Duke Ellington’s funeral, she recalls, and also was featured on Stevie Wonder, Henry Mancini and Barbra Streisand recordings.

She counts an impressive list of clients the past 51 years who have bought, rented or requested tuning, consulting or other services from the city’s oldest piano store.

Their stately grands and uprights come from the 165-year old Blüthner company, the largest family-owned manufacturer of pianos in Europe, Helga tells us.

Kasimoff instruments are heard when you see the logo at the start of TriStar Pictures films and in TriStar’s new Tom Hanks movie, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (opening Nov. 22).

Apple rented the store’s harpsicord to record its introduction of its then-new iPhone —she thinks in 2006, or was it 2007?

Other customers have included Zubin Mehta, John Williams, LA Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the LA Opera. The latter will rent the Kasimoff’s fortepiano for its production of “The Magic Flute” in November and December.

There was Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Marvin Hamlisch and Janis Joplin.

Joplin rented a Neupert harpsichord in 1970 for a Capitol Records recording, about six months before her passing. “She watched Bill tune for an hour and asked me, ‘I want to make sure you get paid, do you know who to bill?’ This was the first and only time an artist asked me,” said Helga, continuing with her list:

The Doors, Beach Boys, John Denver, Julie Andrews, Ann-Margret, Barry White, Supertramp, Adele, Sam Smith, Kanye West, Dixie Chicks, Seth McFarlane, John Williams, Randy Newman, David Newman, Gary Oldman and Tom Cruise (he rented a Neupert to learn fingering for the film “Interview with a Vampire”).

Clint Eastwood (he played jazz), Jeff Bridges, Robert Downey Jr. and Marilyn Horne, who joins a host of opera singers.

Yo-Yo Ma at the showroom

Oh, and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma is among musicians who’ve dropped in to practice in the quiet, off-the-beaten-path Larchmont showroom.

“We get a lot of enjoyment when musicians play here,” beams Helga of her musician friends who visit. The Russian pianists are among her favorites, she whispers.

She and her late husband Vasilly (Bill) began importing Blüthner pianos from Germany in 1963 as well as Neupert harpsichords and Schiedmayer celestas (Disney has rented Kasimoff’s two celestas for recordings in its movies and its theme parks since the 1960s).

Growing up in war-torn Germany, Helga was an Anglophile and translator at international church conferences in her home town, and she taught religious education in public school.

She met her future husband at a pacifist meeting after immigrating to the U.S. in 1952. He proposed to her via a letter while she attended the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

“I was a mail-order bride,” laughs Helga, explaining there was no telephone at the dorm, or at least not one that was handy.

Bill was a clarinetist with the San Gabriel Symphony and piano tuner when they opened their business in Pasadena.

But Helga mapped their drives, and soon discovered Larchmont Blvd. was much closer to their clientele: Warner Brothers, Disney Studios, Paramount, MGM and Capitol Records, among others.

When they purchased the Larchmont lot, they had a 1921 Tudor-style house moved to the back. Building the 2,500-square-foot piano showroom at the front was no small feat, recalls Helga. They went through three architects for the final design to accommodate 9-foot-long pianos in all the doors.

Romantic music

KASIMOFF sons help with the family business. Left to right: Kyril, Helga, Ivan and Sergei (with hat) in the Blüthner showroom on Larchmont. Photo by Bill Devlin

The Blüthner sound lends itself to classical, soul-filled music from the Romantic era, she said, as son Kyril at the keyboard demonstrated, during our interview, its warm, melancholic sound that echoes to the mezzanine.

Helga continues to appraise and consult and travel; she counts 28 national Piano Technology Conventions, 10 international music historian’s conferences and 25 musical instrument museums around the globe in her career.

Her three sons help in the business, delivering and tuning their first-class instruments for conductors and musicians requesting the best.

The business has always been a family affair. “We kind of do everything ourselves,” explains Helga.

Bill died in 1997, and today Kyril, the youngest son, works full time at the showroom, delivering pianos and taking calls from around the world.

Sergei is a composer and performer, and Ivan teaches English-as-a-second-language at Cal State Los Angeles.

All her sons are on call when needed.

“My sons take good care of me,” she says.

The Blüthner has a very distinct sound, she says. It was chosen with her husband all those years ago for its “world wide fame, supreme tone, quality and rich history.”

It hasn’t let her down.

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Category: People

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  1. M.Welles says:

    I loved the article. I think the writing really captured the whole picture with warmth and style.
    Thanks! Mark

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