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He was first, from Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' to 'Casablanca'

Violinist Louis Kaufman will be remembered tonight.

August 21, 2003|Jon Burlingame | Special to The Times

Who is the most recorded violinist in history? Jascha Heifetz? Isaac Stern? Itzhak Perlman?

None of the above, according to KUSC-FM classical-radio program host Jim Svejda. It's Louis Kaufman. And if that name is unfamiliar, his playing shouldn't be: Kaufman was concertmaster and violin soloist on the soundtracks of some of the most beloved movies of all time. He played for "Gone With the Wind," "Casablanca," "Wuthering Heights," "Ben-Hur" and nearly 500 other films from 1934 to 1973.

The violinist, who died in 1994, will be remembered tonight during one of the Los Angeles Public Library's "Hot Off the Press" conversations with authors of new books.

Kaufman's widow, Annette, completed and edited his memoirs, which are being published this month under the title "A Fiddler's Tale: How Hollywood and Vivaldi Discovered Me" (University of Wisconsin Press). Svejda, who knew the violinist in his final years, will talk with Annette Kaufman about her husband's life and career.

"Louis was this unbelievably sweet, gentle, generous guy," says Svejda, "maybe the only guy in the history of Hollywood who never said a bad thing about anybody, and about whom no bad thing was ever said."

Of Kaufman as a performer, Svejda adds: "He had a big, rich, sweet sound, never cloying, wonderfully warm. He was a chameleon -- he knew exactly how to get into whatever particular style or moment [the music] needed, but it was always recognizably Louis."

The Vivaldi reference in the book title concerns Kaufman's other great claim to fame: He was the first artist to record the Italian composer's "Le Quattro Stagioni" (The Four Seasons), now one of the most famous pieces in the classical repertoire.

"When Louis recorded 'The Four Seasons,' Vivaldi's name wasn't even in most musical histories," recalls Annette Kaufman, 88, who still resides in the unpretentious, two-story house on a woodsy corner in Westwood where she and Louis lived for most of their 62-year marriage. Lloyd Wright, whose father was Frank Lloyd Wright, designed it for them in 1934. Herself an accomplished pianist, Annette Kaufman often served as her husband's accompanist.

Like many things in their lives, she says, the Vivaldi connection came about "by happenstance."

"It wasn't that he looked for it. Eighteenth century Venice was far from our thoughts," she says, referring to when and where the work was composed.

The Vivaldi was a last-minute substitution, suggested by CBS conductor Alfredo Antonini, for a Lev Knipper concerto that Kaufman had been scheduled to record. His December 1947 version won France's Grand Prix du Disque in 1950 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. (Naxos is scheduled to re-release the Kaufman "Four Seasons" on CD early next year.)

Throughout his life, Kaufman was a champion of obscure and undiscovered composers, his widow points out. He was among the first violinists to perform works by American composers William Grant Still and Robert Russell Bennett, Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu and Swedish composer Dag Wiren. The Kaufmans became friends with, and premiered works by, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Samuel Barber and others.

But it was as a violin soloist and concertmaster in the Hollywood studios that Louis Kaufman became best known. Composer David Raksin, whose music Kaufman performed in "Laura" (1944) and "Forever Amber" (1947), remembers: "Louis was an absolutely marvelous violinist. He was a concert violinist who was, in a way, slumming when he played in the studios. He was among the best, and very possibly the best, because of his adaptability and great style. A very sweet, gentle, very nice and very smart guy."

Kaufman solos can be heard in many of the classic film scores of the '30s, '40s and '50s, including Herbert Stothart's music for "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935), Erich Wolfgang Korngold's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), Franz Waxman's "Rebecca" (1940), Victor Young's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1943), Miklos Rozsa's "Spellbound" (1945) and Copland's "The Red Pony" (1949).

Kaufman played the demonic fiddle for Walter Huston's Mr. Scratch in Bernard Herrmann's Oscar-winning 1941 score for "All That Money Can Buy," later retitled "The Devil and Daniel Webster." Herrmann had Kaufman play "Pop Goes the Weasel" at breakneck pace and overdubbed it five times for an especially diabolical sound. That, and many other tales of music-making in Hollywood and elsewhere, are recounted in the book.

"It was such fun being with Louis," Annette Kaufman says. "He had the most delightful enthusiasm about fine achievement in art, in the theater, in performance. But Louis was extremely modest. I think most people here in Hollywood had no idea of what he had done in his youth and in the concert world. I felt that the story should be set out."


`Hot Off the Press'

Where: Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. 5th St., downtown

When: 7 tonight

Price: Free

Info: (213) 228-7025

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